Rangers and volunteers work together to preserve Karner blue butterfly, other savanna species

SEARCHING FOR SUSTENANCE: Adult Karner blue butterflies depend on a variety of nectar-producing wildflowers, including wild lupine, hawkweed and goldenrod. (Courtesy photo)

SEARCHING FOR SUSTENANCE: Adult Karner blue butterflies depend on a variety of nectar-producing wildflowers, including wild lupine, hawkweed and goldenrod. (Courtesy photo)

BALDWIN — Thousands of species currently hold a place on the federal list of endangered species. Although some species, such as the tiny Karner blue butterfly, may be overlooked in favor of more well-known species such as zebras and giraffes, their predicament has not gone unnoticed in Michigan. Rangers and volunteers with the Baldwin/White Cloud Ranger District are working to restore the butterfly’s habitat with the hopes of bringing it back.

“Pollinators as a whole are not doing well due to habitat loss,” said Heather Keough, a district wildlife biologist. “Globally, pollinator species are declining. These species, as well as other animals and plants that depend on savannas, could one day be on the federal list of endangered species, which is why it’s important to preserve these types of habitats.”

The Karner blue butterfly is a species of butterfly whose habitat once ranged from Minnesota to Maine and into Canada. Today, the its habitat has been reduced to several states in the Midwest, parts of Canada and areas on the east coast of the U.S.

ROOSTING: A Karner blue butterfly rests on a sprig of butterfly weed. (Courtesy photo)

ROOSTING: A Karner blue butterfly rests on a sprig of butterfly weed. (Courtesy photo)

To stabilize Karner blue butterfly populations in Michigan, volunteers and rangers with the Baldwin/White Cloud Ranger District have implemented several programs to restore the butterfly’s savanna habitat, which also will stabilize several other species.

Savanna habitat is scattered across the Manistee National Forest, which covers a large area from White Cloud to Muskegon and up to Manistee.

“Savanna is a unique natural community that occurs within the Manistee National Forest,” Keough said. “Only 0.02 percent of savanna is left in the U.S. It’s a rare community type.”

Savannas and prairies once occupied 20 to 30 million acres in the Midwest. Savannas declined in the early 1900s due to reforestation, fire control efforts and natural succession. The loss of these open areas, along with other factors such as adverse weather conditions, has led to a loss of nectar-producing plants the Karner blue butterfly depends upon.

The nickel-sized Karner blue butterfly’s distinguishing features are orange spots on the underside of its hind wings. The butterflies depend on nectar-producing plants such as wild lupine, which are found in savanna habitats. What savanna areas are left are often too isolated for the butterflies to reproduce successfully and as a result, the species was listed as endangered on Dec. 14, 1992.

“The Karner blue butterfly is the poster child, so to speak, for this project,” Keough said. “But the savanna habitat actually supports numerous animal species. Animals such as the eastern box turtle, the American woodcock and insects like the Monarch butterfly all depend on this habitat.”

CONTROLLED FIRE: A ranger works to set prescribed fires, which are used to clear areas of trees and other debris, and bring back the savanna habitat. (Courtesy photo)

CONTROLLED FIRE: A ranger works to set prescribed fires, which are used to clear areas of trees and other debris, and bring back the savanna habitat. (Courtesy photo)

Starting in the early ‘90s, the district began to make efforts to restore the savanna habitats.

The district plans to restore and maintain 20,300 acres of savannas over the next 50 years. Restoration activities are focused within five Karner blue butterfly metapopulation areas. Efforts have increased dramatically over the past eight years, with the district treating 500 acres of savannas per year between 2006 and 2012, whereas it only treated 50 acres per year between 1992 and 2005.

To reintroduce savanna habitats, teams worked to remove trees through methods such as prescribed burning to clear space for these open habitats. They also have reintroduced native plant species to the area through seeding and planting.

Starting in 2009, the program began to enlist the help of volunteers to conduct surveys, track Karner blue butterfly populations and plant native nectar-producing plants in cleared areas. In 2013, the district was able to treat 964 acres due to volunteer help and partnerships with organizations such as the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, the Michigan DNR and Consumer’s Energy on township and private lands.

“Some of the volunteers are so enthusiastic,” Keough said. “They jumped at the opportunity to help and we’ve had a lot come back and even help with management efforts.”

Cheryl Gould, of Morley, has volunteered with the district twice and hopes to volunteer again later this year. She initially volunteered because she is interested in wildflowers and noted the dependence the Karner blue butterfly has on wild lupine.

She has helped survey for pollinating plants and search for Karner blue butterflies to help count them.

While treatment of the savanna habitat has dramatically increased, counts of the Karner blue butterfly have yet to be stable from year to year. In 2014, 920 butterflies were counted.

“The Karner blue butterfly is still listed. It’s going to take time to recover the species,” Keough said. “But we’ve seen managed areas that have been converted to savanna become occupied by the butterfly.”

ADDING SEEDS: A volunteer drives a pull tractor, dragging equipment that prepares the area to be seeded with native plant species. (Courtesy photos)

ADDING SEEDS: A volunteer drives a pull tractor, dragging equipment that prepares the area to be seeded with native plant species. (Courtesy photos)

Keough said the weather may have contributed to the decline in the species’ population.

“The highly variable weather has been difficult to overcome,” Keough said. “Alternating between hot, dry summers, unseasonably warm springs followed by frosts, and cooler, wet summers have made recovery efforts harder.”

Both the district and volunteers are concentrated on preserving the habitat and species before they disappear.

“I just think that it’s important,” Gould said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone and we don’t realize the impact of that. The Karner blue butterfly may not seem terribly important, but it’s important to preserve it before other species disappear.”

For more information or to volunteer for restoration efforts, contact Heather Kehoe at (231) 745-4631 ext. 3111 or by email at hkeough@fs.fed.us.

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