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Last hope for the Karner Blue
By Mary Losure, Minnesota Public Radio
August 3, 2001
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Once, a postage-stamp-sized butterfly known as the Karner Blue was found all across the Great Lakes states, from Minnesota to New York, but now its population has declined by 99 percent. The Karner Blue's last stronghold is in Wisconsin, where an unprecedented state-wide effort is underway to save it.

Natural openings in the forest, known as "Barrens", are habitat for Karner Blue Butterfly. See larger image.
(MPR Photo/Mary Losure)
EVERY SMALL MIDWEST TOWN has its summertime celebration; a parade with an antique tractor, a fleet of fez-wearing Shriners driving miniature cars, a queen and her princesses waving from a float as they ride down main street. Black River Falls, Wisconsin, celebrates the Karner Blue Butterfly Festival.

Butterfly-shaped balloons bob from the street lamps. Windows on Main Street are stencilled with blue-painted butterfly silhouettes. Bonnie Schuld, who's come to display her artwork on the sidewalk in front of the Hardware Hank, wears a butterfly t-shirt and sports artificial butterflies in her hair.

She's never seen one of the endangered Karners - a silvery-blue butterfly with a one-inch wingspan - but she's attended the festival every year for the past six years. She says the celebration is good for the local economy and helps spread awareness about an endangered species living in the area. "They're not something that's a thousand miles away. They're right here. That's what this [festival] is all about, and it gets better every year," Schuld says.

Around the block in the shade of a green canvas tent, Mike Engle, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, whose job is to help landowners restore the butterfly's habitat, hands out literature and free seeds of a wildflower known as lupine. The Karner Blue depends on lupine, which is the only known food for Karner caterpillars. Lupine flourishes in prairies, oak savannas, and open areas known "barrens."

Before European settlement, wildfire and other natural disturbances kept these open habitats clear of trees. Now many are overgrown with forest, but they can be restored by selective logging and by the planting of lupine and other wildflowers. Engle says it's easy to find willing landowners. "People are excited about doing it. I think one part, because prairie has become a lot more popular, and that's somewhat of the habitat of the Karner Blue Butterfly, so we have that going for us. And it's a very attractive blue butterfly, that feeds on a lot of attractive wildflowers, so we're encouraging things that are aesthetically pleasing," he says.

The butterfly wasn't always this popular. In 1992 , when the Karner Blue was listed as endangered, some in Wisconsin worried the Endangered Species Act would shut down logging and other activities in the butterfly's range.

But in 1999, 26 parties - including timber companies, county-owned forests, power companies, and the Wisconsin state Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation - signed a voluntary, but binding, agreement that allows them to continue business as usual, with modifications to avoid harming the butterfly. In return, the parties received immunity from prosecution under the Endangered Species Act if their actions occasionally kill the butterflies or damage butterfly habitat.

Utilities have agreed to limit their mowing and spraying along power lines to times that are safer for the butterflies. Timber companies and county forests have altered their logging practices to protect lupines. For example, they no long pile cut logs on lupine patches. Dan Dehmer, a ranger at Wisconsin's Black River State Forest, says at first, loggers were concerned about the restrictions, but they haven't proved onerous. "Now, it's kind of just a non-issue. It's very little work with the loggers that they have to mitigate anything on their part. We just have to administrate timber sales a little bit differently, and they have to log at different times of the year, but its not that bad."

The life cycle of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly is dependent on the wild lupine plant. Two generations of this butterfly occur each year. The first hatch occurs in late April from eggs laid the previous year, and the second hatch from eggs laid early in the summer season. See the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more information.
Allowing logging to continue in the Karner's range benefits not just timber companies, but the butterfly itself. That's because lupine needs full sunlight, and thrives in the wake of logging and other disturbances. Fort McCoy, a 60,000-acre military training reserve 15 miles south of Black River Falls, supports a flourishing population of Karner Blues.

"The species needs disturbance," Tim Wilder, the fort's endangered species biologist, says, "so some of the military training, anyway, is beneficial. I mean that's probably why we've got as many Karners as we do. We've mapped the lupine. We had almost 4,000 acres of lupine on Fort McCoy, and most of those patches, over 95 percent, have Karners in them."

Now that the Karner Blue has been declared endangered, a few isolated patches of lupine are off-limits for training exercises, but Wilder says other than that there have been almost no changes necessary to protect the butterfly, which seems undeterred by some 140 thousand troops a year doing training exercises using Humvees and multiple-launch rocket systems. "We've always said we've lost zero training days because of it," Wilder says.

Because the Karner thrives on disturbance, just leaving its habitat alone, the traditional approach under the Endangered Species Act, won't work. David Lentz, who oversees the Karner Blue butterfly habitat conservation plan for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says the plan is a national model for a different, more cooperative approach to protecting endangered species. "We believe there's a lot of people out there all over the country who have been watching this, hoping that we will be able to pull this off," he says.

Statistics on the program's overall effect on butterfly populations will not be available until 2006, but Lentz says early evidence indicates it's working well. Since the agreement was signed in 1999, the butterflies have been discovered in four to eight new sites in Wisconsin each year. The state has some 290 sites where the butterflies have been found.

Efforts are also underway to save the Karner in other states around the Great Lakes, but since those states have mostly tiny, isolated populations, Wisconsin is seen as the key to the species' survival.