For Immediate Release, June 16, 2009
Ileene Anderson, biologist, (323) 654-5943
Shaye Wolf, PhD, biologist, (415) 632-5301
Wildlife Service Slashes Protected Habitat for
Beleaguered Southern California Butterfly
Quino Checkerspot, Already Reeling From Development, Global Warming, and Wildfires, Has More than 60 Percent of Critical Habitat Removed
LOS ANGELES, Calif.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today cut the designated critical habitat for the extremely endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly by more than 60 percent, from 171,605 acres to just 62,125 acres in Riverside and San Diego counties. The Quino checkerspot is already nearing extinction because of loss of habitat from urban development and catastrophic wildfires, and its range is shrinking because of rapid climate change and drought.
“This shameful proposal is a recipe for the extinction of the Quino checkerspot butterfly,” said Ileene Anderson, biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Checkerspot habitat is getting hammered by urban sprawl, many populations were burned in the recent wildfires, and checkerspots are disappearing from major parts of their range because of global warming. The species needs more protected habitat, not less. The leadership in the Sacramento office of the Fish and Wildlife Service was put in place under the Bush administration, and clearly – unequivocally – new leadership is needed.”
The plight of the tiny Quino checkerspot has been described by a biologist as “four engines out and about ten seconds to impact.” The orange, black, and cream checkered butterfly was once one of the most common butterflies on the coastal slopes of Southern California. Millions could be seen each year in a swath extending from the Santa Monica Mountains to Baja California. Quino checkerspots can occupy a variety of habitat types – including grasslands, scrub, chaparral, and juniper – that support native species of plantain, the primary host plant for butterfly larvae.
“The Quino checkerspot butterfly is one of most endangered species in Southern California and is being hard hit by global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist who works on global climate change issues with the Center. “The large-scale reduction in protected habitat will diminish the butterfly’s chances of surviving in a warming world.”
The checkerspot is now found only in Riverside and San Diego counties and in Baja California. The species has not been seen in Orange, Los Angeles, or coastal San Diego counties for nearly 30 years and is extirpated from San Bernardino County as well. Wildfires in Southern California in 2003 burned 19 percent of the species’ previous critical habitat and 27 percent of known occurrences of the Quino checkerspot; fires in 2005 burned even more occupied habitat. The fires also helped the spread of invasive plants into checkerspot habitat, reducing butterfly host plants.
Although new Quino checkerspot observation locations have been discovered in Riverside and San Diego counties since 2000, and several population outbreaks (several containing between hundreds and a thousand butterflies) were documented, many known habitat areas have been lost to development. The Quino checkerspot was listed as endangered in 1997 following a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, but the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to designate critical habitat at the time. Another Center lawsuit and settlement resulted in a proposal to protect 301,010 acres of core checkerspot habitat in Riverside and San Diego counties. In 2002 the Service finalized the designation, but reduced it to 171,605 acres. Today’s new final designation would reduce that to just 62,125 acres.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to designate critical habitat areas encompassing all lands that are essential to the conservation of the checkerspot in order to recover the butterfly to robust population levels that no longer require special protection. A recovery plan for the Quino checkerspot, published in 2003, identified seven core habitat areas and 18 non-core butterfly occurrences that were to be protected. Today’s proposal would protect only 10 units of critical habitat where the species currently occurs.
Rapid climate change poses a major threat to the Quino checkerspot and other butterflies because of reduced butterfly growth rates and increased population extirpation rates resulting from warmer, drier climate conditions. Quino checkerspot populations have shifted northward and upward in elevation due to climate change, and they have disappeared from the southern 100 miles of their range. The checkerspot subspecies in Baja California, Mexico has disappeared from nearly 80 percent of otherwise suitable habitat due to global warming. Studies of the related Edith’s checkerspot butterfly in Southern California provided some of the first evidence that species are already shifting their range due to global warming. Protecting occupied and unoccupied habitat in northern, higher-elevation portions of the range, increasing habitat connectivity, and increasing the overall amount of protected habitat will increase the resilience of Quino checkerspot butterflies under changing climate conditions.
Remaining Quino checkerspot populations are threatened by elimination, fragmentation, and degradation of habitat due to development, increases in fire frequencies, climate change, drought, pesticide spraying, trash dumping, exotic plants, impacts from off-road vehicles, and collection. On national forest lands, the species is threatened by displacement of larval host plants and adult nectar sources, the spread of invasive plants, livestock grazing, predation by exotic invertebrates, off-road vehicle activity, and fire-management practices. There are currently no known Quino checkerspot habitat complexes with permanent protection. Although some habitat is under public ownership, this species continues to decline throughout its range.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 220,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.