Helping a small butterfly on the road to recovery in New York

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission (APBPC) is working to protect a species as small as your thumbnail.  The APBPC manages thousands of acres of the sandy pitch pine-scrub oak barrens ecosystem to restore habitat for the Karner blue butterfly, a species that has been federally endangered since 1992.  Karners’ are known for their beautiful bright blue colored wings, seen typically in males.  Females are grayish brown, but both sexes are gray on the undersides of their wings.  Their rarity throughout New York State is what makes the Albany Pine Bush such a spectacular place to visit.

Karner blue butterfly

A Karner blue butterfly on a spotted knapweed flower.

Wild lupine plant

A wild lupine plant; the only known food source for Karners at the caterpillar stage.

The butterflies are found in select states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Hampshire.  Within most of these states, Karner populations are limited to just a few areas because of their requirement for relatively open sites with sandy soil that will support the wild lupine plant, the Karner’s only known food source at the caterpillar stage.  Adult butterflies feed on nectar from a variety of flowers, but without lupine, Karner blue butterfly populations cannot survive.

Recently, the APBPC presented visitors with the rare opportunity to see Karner blue butterflies released into the preserve as part of their conservation plan to boost population numbers.  Watch this video, which is also below, to see how the butterflies are released after a long 300 mile journey from egg to butterfly between the Albany Pine Bush and the rearing facility in Concord, NH.

Mesh holding container

A mesh holding container inside the Discovery Center at the Albany Pine Bush. The chrysalises are in the petri dish behind the orange butterfly weed flowers that adult butterflies will feed on. The adult butterfly climbing up the left side of the container recently emerged.

The Karner blue butterfly has declined over the years mainly because of two reasons.  The open sandy soils are perfect locations to build homes and businesses because the ground offers good drainage.  Also, without management, sites can become overgrown with trees through natural succession or with invasive species.  The APBPC has worked with many local, state, and federal organizations to protect, restore, and manage Karner blue butterfly habitat.  To protect these lands the APBPC works with willing landowners to buy or put conservation easements on parcels of land.  Then, restoration is done to continuously manage the sites, making them suitable for Karner blue butterflies.

The ideal habitat that the APBPC is trying to model with these restoration efforts is an open savannah-like area with as few as 30 trees per acre, and a balance of medium height scrub oak plants and other shrubs, and low growing wild lupine.  This provides wild lupine plants with enough space and sunlight to grow.  Unfortunately, shrubby plants and trees grow much taller than lupine, blocking sunlight and disturbing the open area Karners prefer.  To manage shrubby plants, APBPC uses the following restoration methods, which are evaluated by habitat and butterfly monitoring which determine the timeline and approach for each technique:

  • Mowing:  To manage vegetation growth, APBPC staff will mow tall vegetation every other year in areas where there is heavy lupine growth; this doesn’t damage the lupine plants, but simply suppresses the height of taller shrubs.
  • Burning:  In areas where there is little to no lupine growth, an APBPC burn team will perform a prescribed burn in a pre-determined area to remove taller vegetation, then seed for lupine one week after the fire.
  • Mechanical removal:  Mechanical removal of trees or shrubs is necessary when they cannot be maintained by fire or mowing.  Typically, this includes cutting down tall trees or thick, woody shrubs.
  • Herbicide treatment:  In some areas of the Pine Bush, scrub oak plants can become very tall; these areas require treatment by a herbicide because they are too tall to be mowed and they cannot be burned because they are growing in areas with heavy lupine growth.

VIDEO: Butterflies captured from the Pine Bush are transported to rearing facility in New Hampshire

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