Rare Miami blue butterfly gets emergency protection
By Curtis Morgan
The tiny Miami blue butterfly, its numbers reduced to a few hundred on isolated islands off Key West, needs emergency protection to save it from extinction, federal wildlife managers said.
Evoking a rarely used emergency measure, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Miami blue endangered Tuesday, extending full protection for up to 240 days while the agency goes through the formal process of placing it on the federal list of endangered species.
Practically speaking, the action won’t have much immediate impact on the population of nickle-sized butterflies, distinctive for the vividly colored wings of males. But environmentalists, scientists and butterfly enthusiasts hope it will focus more attention, research and — something in especially short supply these days — money on a delicate creature whose survival is so precarious that a single tropical storm through the Marquesas Keys might wipe it out.
“We’re just elated that the emergency protection went into effect,’’ said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based group that had sued the service over backlog of 757 species awaiting listing, the Miami blue among them. The service has blamed the backlog on a lack of money and resources, arguing that the process of simply listing each species runs from $150,000 to $300,000.
But after reviewing the dire data on the Miami blue, the agency moved up its listing from a 2012 date initially proposed in a settlement of the lawsuit.
But there are significant and complex challenges to reviving a population once common along coastlines from Daytona Beach to the Dry Tortugas.
Why it has nearly vanished isn’t completely understood, but some obvious suspects are pesticide spraying and development destroying tropical hardwood hammocks where it flitted. More recently, exotic iguanas have eaten nickerbeans and other plants that host the butterfly’s larvae and caterpillars, and invasive ants have supplanted natives that once protected larvae in a symbiotic relationship. Climate change and hurricanes also may have contributed.
The Miami blue was considered extinct for a time after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 until the discovery of a colony of 50 living in Bahia Honda State Park in 1999. Since 2002, when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued its own emergency endangered species designation for the butterfly, others have been found in the Marquesas, a string of islands west of Key West.
But the Bahia Honda population disappeared last year and efforts to breed them in captivity and release them have failed to product new colonies.
Still, scientists believe reintroductions could have promise — and may be the only hope.
Jaret Daniels, assistant curator of Lepidoptera for the Florida Museum of Natural History who directed the captive breeding program, called it “far and away the most successful breeding program of any imperiled butterfly.’’
The Gainesville-based museum roduced some 35,000 Miami blues between 2003 and 2009 before shutting down, he said. The lab-bred butterflies never made it very long in the wild but Daniels believes the efforts were hamstrung from the start. To settle a lawsuit by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, releases were confined to isolated spots in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, where bug-praying was off-limits but monitoring difficult.
Daniels is optimistic about a wider, better supported program.
“It boils down to persistence and a numbers game,’’ he said. “The more individuals you get out there and the more frequently you do releases, the better the chances.’’
Elane Nuehring, president of the Miami blue chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, which has long campaigned for more protection, hopes help isn’t too late. There are still a host of unanswered questions, she said.
“Are we missing the right ants? Are we doing stuff to the air with spraying? Are we changing the basic temperatures of the ground under the nickerbeans?’’ she said. “There are so many forces.’’The action immediately prohibits capturing, killing or selling a Miami blue — acts that were already a third-degree felony under state law. Long-term, federal designation should boost attention and possibly funding. As part of the listing, the service must gather more data and public feedback and produce a plan intended to pull the blue back from the brink.
“We are going to exhaust every possible avenue,’’ said Ken Warren, a spokesman in the service’s Vero Beach office.
Copyright 2011 Miami Herald Media Co.
This article originally appeared here.
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