Tag Archives: frosted elfin

The elfin has landed: How military aircraft helped a rare butterfly

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

What do frosted elfin butterflies have in common with Blackhawk helicopters?

Both can hover in place, maneuver erratically in flight, and are secured behind locked doors by the New Hampshire Army National Guard.

And if not for the Blackhawks, the elfin there might have remained under the radar.

A male and a female elfin linked up to mate. (Heather Siart)

In 2000, the New Hampshire Army National Guard was preparing to replace its 1970s era UH-1 helicopters (“Hueys”) with modern equipment: nine Blackhawks and a C-12 fixed-wing turboprop plane. But there was a problem. “The existing facility couldn’t support the new aircraft,” explained Arin Mills, conservation specialist for the New Hampshire Army National Guard.

That meant they needed to build a new facility, which demanded more square footage than was available on the state military reservation in Concord.

When the Guard identified a suitable place to build on the corner of the nearby Concord Municipal Airport, they encountered another problem: the parcel contained pine barrens, a rare type of habitat characterized by sandy soil and fire-dependent conifers. Another butterfly of interest, the endangered Karner blue, had been spotted there before.

“As a federal entity, we need to consider impacts to pine-barren species like moths and butterflies,” Mills said.

And so the Guard worked with other federal entities — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for endangered species, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for airports — as well as with New Hampshire Fish and Game and the city of Concord, to land on a solution. The Guard would build a new aviation facility at the municipal airport, and build 15 acres of new pine-barren habitat on the grounds of the state military reservation. The habitat would support the state endangered frosted elfin butterfly, and the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly.

The Army Aviation Support Facility: the building that initiated the consultation leading to the 15-acre habitat restoration project on the state military reservation. Can you spot the Blackhawk helicopter? (N.H. Army National Guard)

It was no small task. We tore down some barracks, tore up roads, and reconfigured the entire reservation to get to the 15 acres,” Mills said. “Construction was still happening when I started here in 2004, and it wasn’t complete until 2006.” It’s worth the effort for the National Guard. Moving the butterflies toward recovery may lead to less stringent mitigation requirements in the future.

When the heavy equipment was finally hauled away, they broke out the tree spades and started planting: first pitch pines, later lupine, which frosted elfin and Karner blue need to survive. Then they started annual surveys, watching and waiting for both butterflies to arrive.

New recruits

In the meantime, some butterflies had already moved in. Not to the barrens — to the barracks.

At the same time the Guard was looking for a new place to house helicopters, New Hampshire Fish and Game was looking for a new place to house butterflies.

In the 1990s, surveys showed New Hampshire’s population of Karner blue butterflies was experiencing a long-term decline. Scientists feared that without direct intervention the species could disappear from the Concord area, so the state worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explore the possibility of starting captive-rearing program.

Among the needs was a secure place to raise them.

Cue the Army National Guard. As part of the mitigation plan for the new aircraft facility, the Guard gave New Hampshire Fish and Game funds for 300 acres of habitat restoration, and a 1,600-square-foot space on the state military reservation.

“They had an old barracks on the reservation that they were no longer using,” said Heidi Holman, project lead for species programs at New Hampshire Fish and Game. “We put a greenhouse roof on top, and began propagating and releasing butterflies.”

At first the primary emphasis was on Karner blue. To date, more than 30,000 have been released into the wild as a result of New Hampshire’s captive-rearing program. However, the state had also been monitoring frosted elfin periodically since the early 2000s, and had attempted to breed them in captivity as well. “They are very territorial and tricky in captivity,” Holman explained.

But with growing concern about elfin throughout the region, biologists have doubled down. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be reviewing the butterfly’s status in 2023, leaving a small window to determine whether it may need similar federal protection to the Karner blue butterfly.

“Building off many years of experience, techniques, and protocols that we have used to re-establish a population of Karner blue in Concord, we wanted to use our lab to contribute to frosted elfin recovery as well,” Holman said.

I love the smell of lupine in the morning

A sprig of wild blue lupine, which both frosted elfin and Karner blue butterflies depend upon to survive. (Heather Siart)

Now with funding from the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, New Hampshire is helping to fill in some of the blanks about elfin.

“Wing measurements, larval measurements, sexing, what exactly they are eating — our main focus is collecting life history information that hasn’t been collected before,” explained Heather Siart, who was hired by Fish and Game with WSFR funding to spearhead the elfin reconnaissance effort.

While they still haven’t figured out how to get elfin to mate in captivity, they have figured out how to get them to lay eggs. “We use a red Solo cup with one cotton ball soaked with honey, one soaked with nectar, and a sprig of lupine, which spurs them to lay,” Siart said.

From just 15 females collected this spring, they got more than 1,000 eggs, 80 percent of which hatched, 50 percent of which they released back into the wild. “That’s a good hatch rate, and now we have well over 500 that we will overwinter until they emerge in the spring,” Holman said.

A few good elfin

The elfin raised on the military reservation are likely to find good homes nearby, as are their offspring. Last May, more than 70 elfin were captured and marked in a single day at the Concord airport, a high for the species at this site.

More than a record, it’s an indication; the habitat restoration work is paying off. It’s also catching on. Since 2001, the partnership between the state, the Guard, the Service, the FAA, and the city, has expanded to include the neighboring industrial gas company, Praxair, Inc., which has restored habitat and planted lupine on their land too.

A frosted elfin caterpillar on a lupine pod in front of the Joint Force Headquarters on the state military reservation. (N.H. Army National Guard)

Someday, elfin will no longer need to be sheltered in the barracks, but they might be able to live right in its footprint. “It’s standing in the middle of our habitat area,” Mills explained. “When the facility is no longer needed, we’ll tear it down.”

In the meantime, the butterflies are well protected. You need security clearance just to get onto the reservation.

Not to mention elfins’ built-in security system. Just like Blackhawk helicopters, they are camouflaged to blend into their surroundings.

“For a long time, I think frosted elfin were overlooked,” Mills said. “Now you can’t go out on the reservation on any day during flight period and not see one.”

Thanks to coordination and collaboration with public and private partners, more than 185 species in the eastern United States have recovered, been downlisted, or did not need listing under the Endangered Species Act. The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other organizations. Our use of conservation incentives and flexibilities to protect wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working has drawn bipartisan support from Congress.

Pollinator Partnerships – How the Frosted Elfin Contributes to the Important World of Pollination

Animals that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food.

The process of pollination occurs when a pollen grain moves from the anther (male part) of a flower to the stigma (female part).


This is the first step in a process that produces seeds, fruits, and the next generation of plants.

This can happen through self-pollination, wind and water pollination, or through the work of vectors that move pollen within the flower and from bloom to bloom.

Birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, small mammals, and bees are examples of pollinators. They visit flowers to drink nectar or feed on pollen and transport pollen grains as they move from spot to spot.

Somewhere between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants on the earth need help with pollination. Pollinators provide pollination services to over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 different crops.

If we talk dollars and cents, pollinators add 217 billion dollars to the global economy and honey bees alone are responsible for between 1.2 and 5.4 billion dollars in agricultural productivity in the United States.

In addition to the food that we eat, pollinators support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.

One pollinator species the Service is giving extra attention is the frosted elfin butterfly.


Photo credit: Bill Bouton

This small non-migratory butterfly depends on wild blue lupine and wild indigo to complete its annual life cycle. They occur in oak pine barrens, oak savannas, prairie and dry oak woodlands, as well as powerline cuts, railways, old sand/gravel pits, and airports with sandy soils. In New York, frosted elfin are limited to a few areas like the Rome Sandplains, Albany Pine Bush, and Long Island barrens.

The current range of the frosted elfin includes 25 states. This butterfly is now likely extirpated in Ontario, Canada, and the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, and Vermont after habitats were lost for a variety of reasons including incompatible vegetation management, catastrophic wildfire, and residential development.

A portion of the frosted elfin’s range overlaps with the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly. Where the species co-occur, both use wild blue lupine as host plants and face similar threats or potential benefits from management.

How can you help the frosted elfin as well as many other pollinator species?

Here are some ways you can get involved and support pollinators in your own backyard:

  • Provide a habitat: Plant a mix of flowering trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants so that something is always blooming. Native plants are a great choice.  If you occur in the range of the frosted elfin, planting wild lupine or wild indigo and early flowering plants is important.
  • Don’t mow or rake all parts of your yard: Many pollinators need a safe place to build their nests and overwinter. During spring and summer, leave some areas of your yard unmowed. In fall, leave some areas of your yard unraked and leave plant stems standing in your flower beds.
  • Be Pesticide Free: Pesticides, especially insecticides, can harm pollinators. Herbicides reduce food sources by removing flowers from the landscape.

By getting involved in conservation and taking small steps every day, we can all support a more biodiverse landscape and protect our pollinators one butterfly at a time.

Creative Commons Flickr User aecole2010



Wild blue lupine is found in pine barrens and sandy areas in the eastern U.S. This area at Westover Air Reserve Base is managed to keep it open and encourage the rare wild plant to return year after year. Credit: Leah Hawthorn, USFWS

Four people moved slowly through seven acres of blue wildflowers at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The nation’s largest Air Force Reserve base, Westover has supported missions like the direction of Patriot missile-defense batteries to Turkey and the response to Hurricane Sandy on the U.S. East Coast in 2012.

Today’s mission on the airfield was closer to home, much smaller (some might even say dainty) and by no means threatening. We were on the hunt for a butterfly–not the striking monarch, but the unassuming frosted elfin, whose brown wings span just about one inch.

Frosted elfin

A frosted elfin at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin. Can you see its single tail on the hindwing? Credit: Tim Wilder

Birders discovered the rare butterfly on base about two decades ago. Why might the frosted elfin find its way to Westover? To make its home in the wild blue lupine, one of only two flowers that frosted elfin caterpillars can eat.

And why would a rare flower survive on an air reserve base with heavy training activity? Turns out that the lupine–and therefore the butterflies–love it.

The frosted elfin has been recorded in the grassy savannas of at least five Department of Defense installations within its eastern U.S. range. Each uses prescribed burns to maintain grasslands, prevent wildfires and reduce invasive plants while training firefighters. The burns reset the clock, as Native Americans and nature once did, creating ideal conditions in barrens for shade-intolerant plants like wild lupine and indigo.

The burns are especially important at Westover, said Jack Moriarty, the base’s environmental flight chief.

“Westover Air Reserve Base has the biggest contiguous grassland in New England,” Moriarty said. “The prescribed burns reduce fire hazards. They are good for the airfield, good for the birds and good for the grasslands.”

Jack Moriarty

Jack Moriarty, Westover Air Reserve Base environmental flight chief, stands in lupine on the airfield. Credit: Leah Hawthorn, USFWS

The frosted elfin is already protected by multiple state wildlife agencies, has been completely lost in several other states, and is at risk of needing federal Endangered Species Act protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the elfin as a species for which quick, thorough and effective conservation action could restore butterfly populations and possibly prevent the need for that protection. The agency must decide by September 2023 whether the frosted elfin is threatened or endangered, or neither.

As barrens and savannas have been developed or allowed to overgrow, pockets of wild lupine and indigo have disappeared from many areas where the frosted elfin once flew.

“If we can get people engaged and committed to managing habitats for the frosted elfin, we might be able to put the butterfly back on the right path,” said Robyn Niver, a Service endangered species biologist. “The Department of Defense is well-positioned to play a critical role in restoring the frosted elfin.”

Congress, through the Sikes Act of 1960, recognized that military lands contain some of the nation’s most valuable natural resources. The act requires DoD installations to have plans outlining how their activities align with managing those resources. Take a look at the plan for Camp Edwards on Cape Cod, and you’ll find that carefully planned prescribed burns and selective tree cutting and herbicides benefit an entire community of wildlife that depend on the pine barrens, including the at-risk New England cottontail.

“The Department of Defense and our military are some of our most effective land stewards,” said Jake McCumber, natural resources program manager for the Massachusetts Army National Guard. “At most DoD bases, work needs to be done to sustain training lands, and that happens to be the same work needed to conserve these ecosystems and dependent species.”

“There’s a beautiful continuity to it.”

The elfin had flown under McCumber’s figurative radar until this past May, when he confirmed its presence in an Edwards savanna. He was hardly surprised: The base for years had been managed to benefit species with needs similar to those of the small flier. The site is also home to prairie warblers, field sparrows, clay colored sparrows and merlins.

The elfins appear to be in the right place, if others species’ success in other areas of Camp Edwards is an indicator. While populations of scarlet tanagers and brown thrashers are dropping drastically in some areas, they’ve steadily increased at Camp Edwards. The trend shows promise for managing pine barrens for training and a variety of habitats.

The species is spreading its wings elsewhere, too. At Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin and at Concord State Military Reservation in southern New Hampshire, frosted elfins have become easier to find during the few spring weeks between when they emerge from cocoons under the lupine and when they mate and lay eggs on those plants. The elfins have benefitted from work targeted to benefit the endangered Karner blue butterfly, which also relies on lupine.

“It has been good to see the increase in frosted elfins over my 10 years here,” said Arin Mills, a New Hampshire Army National Guard conservation specialist. “Where at one time it may have been more of a treat, we go out on a butterfly survey during the expected flight time and almost always see a frosted elfin here on the State Military Reservation.”

At Fort McCoy, frosted elfin observations have jumped higher every year since targeted surveys began in 2009. This year, searchers counted more than 100 — triple the 2016 tally.

Tim Wilder, an Army endangered species biologist, wonders why he hasn’t seen them in more places on base. Lupine covers 3,000 acres there, but frosted elfins aren’t using all of it. Nonetheless, it’s home to other species, including the phlox moth, dreamy duskywing, and Henry’s elfin.

Tim Wilder points out frosted elfin

Tim Wilder, an Army endangered species biologist at Fort McCoy, points out a female frosted elfin preparing to lay eggs. Photo courtesy of Tim.

“The area where we observe our highest numbers of frosted elfin butterflies has been used for some level of military training for over 70 years,” Wilder said. “These rare species, including the frosted elfin butterfly, are still found on Fort McCoy, at least in part, because of the military training and other land management activities that have occurred on the landscape over the past 100-plus years.”

Department of Defense installations like Fort McCoy are coordinating with the Service to better understand where the species still occurs, and the kind of conservation efforts that will best help it succeed. Niver, the Service’s endangered species biologist, said the agency will develop a conservation strategy to guide future surveys, research, and management efforts.

Little copper butterfly

NOT a frosted elfin. One of several American copper butterflies seen at Westover Air Reserve Base during our May visit. Credit: USFWS

On that cool morning in May at Westover, we admired the striking blue blooms that bubbled up the lupine stem. We watched moths, bees and American copper butterflies buzz or bounce from plant to plant. Frosted elfins were nowhere to be found.

The butterfly’s flight was over, but it would be back next year.