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Miami blue butterfly
KeysNet.com, December 11, 2010

Rare Keys butterfly disappears again
By Kevin Wadlow

Believed to be extinct, the Miami Blue butterfly seemed to miraculously spring back to life in 1999 when an amateur enthusiast discovered a colony in Bahia Honda State Park.

Now that seminal Lower Keys colony appears to have vanished, despite more than a decade of studies, emergency declarations and a University of Florida breeding program.

"This species has been on the radar for more than 10 years but the bureaucracy has been fiddling while the Miami Blue flickers out," said Dennis Olle of Miami.

Olle, an attorney who serves as a board member of the North American Butterfly Association and president of NABA's Miami Blue Chapter, authored an article, "Who Killed the Miami Blues?", for the current issue of "American Butterflies" magazine.

"Obviously we're frustrated," Olle said. "The government spent a lot of time on meetings and reports; it's a very unwieldy process. But everybody seemed to take their eye off the ball when it comes to actually keeping the Miami Blue protected."

Miami Blues, a tiny butterfly about the size of a nickel, have not disappeared entirely. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists regularly count Blues at a colony found in 2006 in the unpopulated Marquesas islands, about midway between Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

"The results are variable, from 10 to several hundred. Miami Blues are not gone from the Key West Wildlife Refuge," said Anne Moorkill, manager of the federal Lower Keys wildlife refuges.

"It's important that we determine the status of the Miami Blue population and threats to it," Moorkill said. "We mostly work with animals like birds and sea turtles so we're starting a new effort with an expert researcher from North Carolina State University," she said.

The Miami Blues now may not exist anywhere outside the Marquesas.

A small regional population of Miami Blues essentially disappeared after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 shredded South Florida. Many butterfly scientists - lepidopterologists - concluded the species had gone extinct.

Then came the 1999 surprise when the colony of three to four dozen Miami Blues was found on the earthen approach to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, inside the state park.

"In the butterfly world, this was huge," Olle said.

In 2003, the Miami Blue butterfly was named to Florida's endangered species list. No animal has been added since.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005 acknowledged the Miami Blue merits federal endangered status, says a report from the Center for Biological Diversity, but the federal agency said "lack of funding prevented measures from being taken, and the species has been condemned to the 'warranted but precluded' list ever since."

Olle believes more should have been done to protect the colony at Bahia Honda State Park. He said "a convergence of forces" likely triggered the colony's loss, from human encroachment to invasive iguanas that devour the gray nickerbean shrubs needed by the Miami Blue to serve as "host plants" for the butterfly larvae. Last winter's record cold snap probably did not help.

"It's an inelegant term, but the colony 'winked out.' It happens," Olle said. "It's a bug that lives in adult form for less than a week."

"I don't think anyone actively did anything to get rid of them, but it was like no one was watching," Olle said. "One day, they woke up and the Miami Blues were gone."

Bahia Honda staff referred questions about the Miami Blue butterfly to Florida Park Service headquarters in Tallahassee.

"The Miami Blue butterflies at Bahia Honda State Park have not been observed since June 2010," agency spokeswoman Jessica Kemper Sims said in an e-mail. "We do not know for sure why the butterflies have not been seen but many factors have likely influenced their disappearance."

"I think everyone is under the impression that Miami Blues are still at Bahia Honda," said Marathon resident Steve Errera, a lifetime butterfly enthusiast. "It's disappointing that people are looking for them but not finding any."

Specimens from the Bahia Honda colony were collected in 2003 by University of Florida staff for breeding at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity in Gainesville.

The breeding program flourished, producing tens of thousands of Miami Blues. Keeping the tiny butterflies alive in the wild has been a more discouraging story.

"Attempts at reintroducing captive-bred Miami blues to the wild have not been successful," says a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report. "Determining why reintroduction efforts have not succeeded is a research priority."

Olle suggested, "They didn't release the Miami Blues in the most likely places where they could recover. They were released where it most politically expedient."

Early opposition from the Monroe County Mosquito Control District - concerned about how new colonies of a protected species would affect agency operations - "set the tone," Olle said.

As a result, releases took place in remote tracts of government conservation land, like Elliot Key off Miami and near Flamingo in Everglades National Park.

The often-inaccessible locations hindered researchers' attempts to track the released butterflies and caterpillars, Olle said.

"They'd go back two weeks later and not find anything," he said. "That's hardly a surprise. It's not like releasing a panther with a tracking collar."

Olle said he was uncertain if the breeding program remains active. Staff at the McGuire Center could not be reached at press time.

"I'm not pointing at anybody and saying this is their fault. A lot of good, well-meaning people have been involved," Olle said. "But the bureaucratic process is a mindless, slow-moving train wreck."

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Photo © Paul S. Hamilton