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MISSION ELFIN

lupine

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.

The controlled use of fire can remove or chew down older woody growth, periodically returning the habitat to a young stage, insuring that we keep enough young forest around so that the land supports the wildlife that need it. Fort Indiantown officials must continually use prescribed (also called controlled) fires to reduce the amount of woody fuel on the ground so that small fires don’t become big ones that jump out of the training area. This photo is from a prescribed burn in March 2011. Credit: Pennsylvania National Guard/Tom Cherry (from Flickr Commons)

“Training-scape” helps soldiers, wildlife

This regal fritillary is at Fort Indiantown Gap in central Pennsylvania, one of very few places this butterfly can be found outside of the Great Plains region. Conservationists burn and scatter plant seeds to replenish native grasslands with food plants fritillaries need during different stages of their life cycle. Next to those grasslands lie literally thousands of acres of young forest. Credit: Pennsylvania National Guard/Tom Cherry (from Flickr Commons)

This rare regal fritillary is at Fort Indiantown Gap in central Pennsylvania, one of very few places this butterfly can be found outside of the Great Plains region. Conservationists burn and scatter plant seeds to replenish native grasslands with food plants fritillaries need during different stages of their life cycle. Next to those grasslands lie literally thousands of acres of young forest. Credit: Pennsylvania National Guard/Tom Cherry (from Flickr Commons)

This post comes to us from our partner site, www.youngforest.org, a resource dedicated to keeping young forest on our landscape. Let’s grow wildlife habitat together! Our agency is a partner for this specific Pennsylvania project, and one of our volunteers, Dave Putnam, has dedicated many efforts to it.

It sounds like a contradiction in terms: An active military base that’s a wildlife hotspot. But at Fort Indiantown Gap in central Pennsylvania (known simply as “the Gap”), staff conservationists are shaping a landscape for military training while simultaneously making and maintaining thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, including native grasslands and young forest, rare and getting rarer in the Northeast where mature forest increasingly dominates the land.

“Fort Indiantown Gap is one of the most biodiverse places I’ve ever been,” reports Forest Program Manager Shannon Henry, “and that’s because we proactively manage it.”

Nature enthusiasts from across the U.S. visit the Pennsylvania National Guard post to see the regal fritillary. Credit: Pennsylvania National Guard/Tom Cherry (from Flickr Commons)

Nature enthusiasts from across the U.S. visit the Pennsylvania National Guard post to see the regal fritillary. Credit: Pennsylvania National Guard/Tom Cherry (from Flickr Commons)

Henry works closely with Joseph Hovis, who heads the base’s Wildlife Section. On the 17,000-acre base more than 125,000 soldiers train each year. They need ranges where they can drive tanks and practice shooting weapons from rifles to cannons. Hovis’s and Henry’s job is to keep that “training-scape” functioning through prescribed burning, timber harvests, and brush-cutting.

“We keep the vegetation short – less than 10 feet on a shooting range, for example,” says Hovis. “Each year we apply fire to 3,000 to 5,000 acres and harvest timber on another 200 to 300 acres.”

Those activities yield the kind of periodic disturbances that once were common – disturbances that set back vegetative growth and give rise to patches of young forest and grassland that move around on the landscape. At the Gap, such ephemeral habitats provide food and cover for a broad range of creatures including woodcock, bobwhite quail, catbirds, towhees, brown thrashers, blue grosbeaks, box turtles, wood turtles, spotted turtles, smooth greensnakes, timber rattlesnakes – the list goes on and on.

Read the rest of this story at www.youngforest.org!

The controlled use of fire can remove or chew down older woody growth, periodically returning the habitat to a young stage, insuring that we keep enough young forest around so that the land supports the wildlife that need it. Fort Indiantown officials must continually use prescribed (also called  controlled) fires to reduce the amount of woody fuel on the ground so that small fires don’t become big ones that jump out of the training area. This photo is from a prescribed burn in March 2011. Credit: Pennsylvania National Guard/Tom Cherry (from Flickr Commons)

The controlled use of fire can remove or chew down older woody growth, periodically returning the habitat to a young stage, insuring that we keep enough young forest around so that the land supports the wildlife that need it. Fort Indiantown officials must continually use prescribed (also called controlled) fires to reduce the amount of woody fuel on the ground so that small fires don’t become big ones that jump out of the training area. This photo is from a prescribed burn in March 2011. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ted Nichols/Released to Pennsylvania National Guard (from Flickr Commons)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responds to Sandy in West Virginia

Greg Titus, division fire management office on assignment to respond to Superstorm Sandy in West Virginia. Credit: Catherine Hibbard/USFWS

Greg Titus, division fire management office on assignment to respond to Superstorm Sandy in West Virginia.
Credit: Catherine Hibbard/USFWS

“This is more snow than I’ve seen in my entire life!” said Greg Titus while on assignment in West Virginia to respond to Superstorm Sandy.

Titus, a division fire management officer from St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, was one of several U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees deployed to snowbound West Virginia as members of the interagency Southern Area Red Type 1 Team.

Their direction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was to help clear roads blocked by fallen trees and to work at National Guard airports in Martinsburg and Charleston, W.Va., where tractor trailers brought food, water and generators for storm victims.

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Josh O’Connor, a fire management specialist at the Service’s Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, Ga., was a division supervisor helping manage and track relief supplies at Yeager airport in Charleston. He worked side by side with workers from FEMA and the West Virginia Air National Guard. 

“It’s not the most glamorous job,” O’Connor said, “but it’s helping people out.” 

Tony Farmer

Tony Farmer, an information technology specialist on the Red Team. Credit: Catherine Hibbard/USFWS

The team also helped residents of Randolph, Tucker and Preston counties, where more than two feet of snow fell in blizzard conditions.

Within 30 minutes of Greg Titus’ arrival to snow he had only seen in movies and postcards, the division supervisor and his chainsaw crew began working with the National Guard to clear a road to a water tower in Tunnelton, a West Virginia town of 300 residents.

“They restored water supply, helped get electric crews access, and were overall great help,” said Captain Donnie Weaver of the West Virginia National Guard at Camp Dawson, where Titus’ crew was based. “Without their help, we’d still have only 40 to 50 percent of our secondary roads open.“

Crews in all three counties cleared more than 200 miles of road.

It’s that type of work that attracted Tony Farmer from the Service’s Southeast Regional Office to the Red Team, a “type 1” overhead team that manages people and equipment for the most complex incidents.

Incident commander Tony Wilder. Credit: Catherine Hibbard

Incident commander Tony Wilder. Credit: Catherine Hibbard

An information technology specialist at home and on the team, Farmer said, “I enjoy working with people and being a part of the service of what we do in this country.”

Although the Red Team was one of two teams established in 1985 in the Southern Area fire management geographic area, members are from local, state and federal agencies from other parts of the country, including the Northeast. Catherine Hibbard, an employee of the Service’s Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Mass., is a Red Team public information officer.

The team is led by Tony Wilder, incident commander and fire management officer at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge

“I’m proud of what my team has accomplished,” Wilder said. “I’m also proud that my agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supports team members who step up to help fellow Americans when they need it most.“

See other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updates for Superstorm Sandy.

Submitted by Catherine J. Hibbard, wildlife refuge and public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.