Rescuing Rare Beauties

Insects often get short shrift from conservationists, but butterflies are now getting much-needed help

  • Doug Harbrecht
  • Aug 01, 1991
So what is it about this bug, anyway? For centuries, poets and scholars have been going gaga over Lepidoptera. Even the insects' most eloquent twentieth-century champion, writer-scientist Vladimir Nabokov, caustically observed that his beloved order of insects has been the subject of more "stale anecdotes, pseudo-Indian legends and third-rate poetry" than any other arthropods on the planet. And if truth be told, butterflies do not always behave the way we expect. Many species prefer hanging around rotten fruit, mud puddles, human sweat, even animal scat to flitting among flowers on a sunny day.

But don't tell that to Ro Vaccaro. This very twentieth-century legal secretary happened upon Pacific Grove, California, as the monarchs were gathering by the thousands from all over the West at one of their few U.S. wintering grounds. One dazzling glimpse was enough. In 1988, she sent her resignation back to Washington, D.C., via Federal Express.

Today, Vaccaro is president of Friends of the Monarchs, a 180-member group she started. Last year she helped convince the town of 17,000 to vote itself a tax hike in order to save a 2.7-acre butterfly resting site from development. That way, she and hundreds of visitors can continue an annual spring ritual: applauding as the monarch males wrestle the females from the sky and then drag them up nearby tree trunks for a roll in the Monterey pines.

And don't badmouth butterflies to Ronald Boender. An electrical engineer who was "retired and bored," Boender decided a few years ago to try butterfly gardening as a hobby in his backyard in Broward County, Florida. "It was a life-changing experience," says Boender, who has since founded Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, a 3-acre haven of plants for rare tropical and North American species.

Boender's facility has become one of the largest butterfly research and education centers in the country—a place where hundreds of people come every year for courses in creating butterfly habitat in backyards, highway median strips and corporation headquarters landscapes. "It is so fulfilling," says Boender. "You are helping a delicate creature make the world a more beautiful place."

These days, those delicate creatures have a growing number of fans rallying to save them. Scientists, environmentalists and citizen activists are waking up to declines of butterfly species and are pioneering techniques to bring them back from the brink of extinction.

Rare midges, caddis flies and other ecologically important but nondescript insects can vanish unlamented by the general public. But butterflies are a different matter. They have the charisma of pandas and whales, the charm that sparks public interest in an environmental problem. Indeed, butterflies are providing invertebrate conservation with its own poster child.

"Butterflies are magical," says Melody Allen, executive director of the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based international group dedicated to conserving invertebrates. "No photograph can possibly give you the sense of what it's like standing in the middle of 50 million monarchs at rest, hearing the faint fluttering of their wings."

They're sexy, too. Besides their beauty, the insects' mating habits seem to hold a strong fascination for aficionados. Nabokov, author of Lolita, distinguished himself among lepidopterists for skill in identifying lycaenid butterflies. He kept a collection of lycaenid male genitalia, coated in glycerin and meticulously labeled, in vials in his office.

Unfortunately, butterfly magic of any kind is getting rarer. Colorado entomologist Paul Opler, Xerces Society vice president, saw drought cause "widespread declines" in the last decade. The declines have been leveling off, but tales from local butterfly-watchers have not been promising. Three butterflies once found in the San Francisco Bay area are now extinct, the victims of urban invasion of unique habitats in the area. Eight of the 12 butterflies on the federal Endangered Species List could be headed for a similar fate; they are indigenous to rapidly disappearing coastal habitats in California.

Meanwhile, in the Florida Keys, mosquito spraying is unintentionally killing off many of the rare Shaus' swallowtail. And in West Virginia and the Carolinas, entomologists worry about preliminary evidence that southern skippers and other butterflies are highly susceptible to demanol used to control gypsy moths.

Paving, draining and taming habitat plays such havoc with butterflies because many species need specific plants to survive. The great purple hairstreak larvae, for example, eat only mistletoe. Monarchs migrate hundreds of miles to lay eggs on milkweed. And the endangered Dakota skipper is severely limited by its need for unplowed prairie of gama, beard and needle grass. There's hardly any left in the Upper Midwest.

What to do? First, activists publicize the imperiled species and either entice or attempt to force developers to heed the butterflies' need for untouched habitat. Then, in phase two, conservationists apply techniques of intensive population management.

Consider the case of the El Segundo blue. This endangered butterfly is nothing to write poetry about. Its tiny larvae feed solely on the flower of sea cliff buckwheat once common in the coastal sand dunes that long ago were bulldozed to make way for Los Angeles' urban sprawl. Now, all but 2 acres of the dune remnants are found on Los Angeles International Airport property. But in the mid-1970s when lepidopterists discovered a colony of the insects on a 2-acre mound near a refinery owned by Standard Oil of California, the company was happy to protect them. After all, they were butterflies.

Today, Chevron entomologist Richard Arnold supplements older, nonflowering buckwheat on the site with fresh nursery stock. "This butterfly will always be vulnerable to factors over which we have no control," he says, "but you hold your breath and hope for the best."

To the north, the endangered bay checkerspot has been adopted as a mascot by Waste Management Inc. The company has agreed to deposit $50,000 a year in a trust fund to protect and enhance habitat for a colony of the rare butterflies, which happens to live on Waste Management's property overlooking Kirby Canyon landfill.

The mission blue presents a far more complex—and more common—challenge. For years, scientists were baffled by blues that thrived in some patches of lupines but were absent in others. Now, researchers have discovered that the caterpillars dine on one of the lupine species; adults favor a different one. Another important finding: Ants covet honeydew excretions on the backs of the caterpillars and keep them hidden from predators. Without the ants, the caterpillars make easy prey.

To protect the endangered mission blues, along with the callippe silverspot and the San Bruno elfin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to reestablish 80 acres of the insects' lupine and sedum habitat in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The service also entered into a controversial agreement with developers on San Bruno Mountain, south of San Francisco. In return for bulldozing some habitat, the developers agreed to protect the remaining portions and set up trust funds for stepped-up habitat "enhancement." To allow this maneuver, Congress altered the Endangered Species Act.

This arrangement is better for the longterm survival of the endangered butterflies, the theory goes, than if no development or management occurred at all. But not everyone agrees. "It's hubris to assume that you can do a better job getting habitat back into shape than saving it," says Robert Michael Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society and former northwest land steward for The Nature Conservancy. "We are far too primitive in our knowledge of many species to reintroduce them later." Pyle hopes Congress will reconsider such agreements when the Endangered Species Act comes up for reauthorization.

While butterflies have been pinned to boards, classified and reclassified for more than two centuries, ignorance about their behavior is a common lament among conservationists. Under pressure from citizen groups, the city of Santa Barbara and Hyatt Hotels agreed in 1987 to configure a road to a new hotel so that it skirted huge wintering clusters of monarchs. But wouldn't you know it? The next year, the monarchs clustered in trees in the path of the new road, and now the city is trying to renegotiate the agreement.

Some state governments are trying to learn the basics. Ohio has now joined California and New York in funding surveys of threatened butterflies not on the U.S. Endangered Species List, such as Mitchell's satyr and the Karner blue. And in Washington and Oregon, studies are underway to map locations of all 155 species of native butterflies.

"If you save the insect, you save the habitat. Then you save an entire ecosystem," says Lowell R. Nault, president of the Entomological Society of America. "That's where having your flagship species comes in." If conservationists can help it, people will be dreaming about butterflies for years to come, perhaps creating more third-rate poems along the way.

Butterfly-fan Doug Harbrecht is White House correspondent for Business Week.

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