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Thorne’s hairstreak butterfly
Hermes copper butterfly

The Thorne’s hairstreak butterfly ( Callophrys [Mitoura] thornei or Callophrys [Mitoura] grynea thornei) is an extremely imperiled species known only from the San Ysidro Mountains (a.k.a. Otay Mountains) in southwest San Diego County, California. Thorne’s hairstreak has been recognized as unique and imperiled for over 20 years, since it was first described as a species in 1983, and is dependent on its host plant for survival - the rare Tecate cypress.


Thorne’s hairstreak butterfly - Photo by Michael Klein

Thorne’s hairstreak is on the brink of extinction. Only five, small populations of Thorne’s hairstreak are known to remain in existence following the large Mine Fire of 2003. All five populations are located inside of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Otay Mountains Wilderness, yet this has provided little insurance against a significant trend towards extinction. Designated wilderness cannot protect the species from the primary threat of excessive, human-induced wildfire.

Thorne’s hairstreak is imminently threatened by fire. One single, new fire could cause extinction of the species. The 2003 Mine Fire provided a clear example of the threat of wildfire to the species when it burned approximately 68% of Thorne’s hairstreak habitat (Betzler et al. 2003). At least 58 other fires have burned through and near Thorne’s hairstreak and Tecate cypress populations in the San Ysidro Mountains over the last century, according to California Department of Forestry and U.S. Forest Service records. This number greatly exceeds pre-European settlement fire frequency in southern California chaparral ecosystems, and poses a highly significant threat to the survival of Thorne’s hairstreak and its Tecate cypress habitat.

Thorne’s hairstreak and Tecate cypress are also endangered by prescribed fire, livestock grazing, vehicle access, recreation, global climate change, and delayed federal protection. The San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Plan and other existing government regulations provide few if any protections for the species.

Thorne’s hairstreak has never received formal Endangered Species Act (also “ESA”) protection despite 20 years of official knowledge of the species’ perilous status. Extensive speculation spread on the possible extinction of Thorne’s hairstreak following the Mine Fire. Yet the Bush administration has taken no action over the following year to provide protections for the species.

The San Diego Biodiversity Project submitted a petition to list Thorne’s hairstreak as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in May 1991 (Hogan 1991). The Service rejected the petition on a cynical technicality in 1993, alleging that the petition lacked necessary substantial information while simultaneously acknowledging the agency actually already possessed the missing information (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1993).

Despite the Service’s negative conclusion on the petition, the agency nevertheless concluded that listing the species as endangered may be warranted, and promised to conduct a status review. However, a Freedom of Information Act request to the Service in 2004 revealed no evidence of any status review for Thorne’s hairstreak. The Service has apparently taken no further action to protect the species despite huge impacts from the 2003 fires, years of concern over its conservation status, a well-documented and significant trend toward extinction, and the availability of substantial information in support of listing.

Formal, emergency recognition of Thorne’s hairstreak as an endangered species should increase available conservation resources and education on the status of the species. Increased conservation and education should include improved recognition by responsible agencies of the species’ imperiled status and of the significant threat posed by wildfire. Formal listing protection should result in preparation of a recovery plan for Thorne’s hairstreak by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Formal listing protection should also result in increased funding availability for recovery activities, and increased conservation activities by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Forestry, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and others. Conservation activities should include improved fire suppression in and around San Ysidro Mountains Tecate cypress stands, restoration of Tecate cypress habitat, resident wilderness managers and fire fighters, patrols for unauthorized campfires and arsonists, efforts to increase the number of Thorne’s hairstreak populations and individuals, and other specific recovery measures.


Hermes copper butterfly - Photo by Claude Edwards

The Hermes copper butterfly (Hermelycaena [Lycaena] hermes) is An imperiled species endemic to San Diego County and northern Baja California, west of the Peninsular mountain ranges. Hermes copper has been recognized as unique and imperiled for decades, and is dependent on patches of its spiny redberry ( Rhamnus crocea ) host plant for survival.

Early southern California butterfly enthuthiasts were enchanted by Hermes copper. Comstock wrote in 1927, “It is a fascinating little sprite as it darts about in the sunlight, or sports its showy colors while balanced on a tuft of wild buckwheat.” Yet Comstock and others also recognized the creeping threat of urbanization to the species.

It will always be a rarity, and may, in fact, some day become extinct, if San Diego continues to expand at its present rate. (Comstock 1927)

Its trysting places are being rapidly taken over by realtors and the species may soon become extinct … (W.S. Wright 1930)

Although there are numerous extant colonies of [Hermes copper] in San Diego County, this species occupies less than half of it’s former range. Because continued development in San Diego County threatens to eliminate additional colonies of this insect, [Hermes copper] is considered highly sensitive and vulnerable to extirpation. (Brown 1991)

[Hermes copper] has been virtually extirpated in nearly all of its best known historical localities around the city of San Diego. (Murphy 1991)\

Only 15 populations of Hermes copper are know to remain in existence in the United States following the large San Diego County fires of 2003. Three other populations in Baja California are presumed extant in this petition, but their actual status is unknown.

Hermes copper is highly vulnerable to extinction due to the threat of fire. Excessive, human-induced fire poses a significant threat to the survival of the species, even on lands otherwise protected from development.

Hermes copper populations were devastated by fire in October 2003. The 2003 Paradise, Cedar, and Mine fires burned an estimated 39% of Hermes copper habitat (Betzler et al. 2003). By far the largest concentration of the species ever documented was lost when the Cedar Fire burned nearly all of the Crestridge Ecological Reserve in the unincorporated San Diego County community of Crest. 2001 surveys at the reserve found approximately 52 Hermes copper colonies with a total estimated population of 1,000 butterflies (California Department of Fish and Game 2002). The October 2003 Cedar Fire appears to have destroyed every colony within the reserve (M. Klein, pers. comm.).

At least 15 other Hermes copper populations were lost to the 2003 Cedar and Mine fires, including the second largest concentration of the species when the Cedar Fire burned through four populations in Mission Trails Regional Park in the City of San Diego. At least three Hermes copper populations were likely lost to past fires on Bernardo Mountain near Escondido, Dictionary Hill in Spring Valley, and San Marcos Creek. The number of fires burning through Hermes copper habitat appears to exceed pre-European settlement fire frequency in southern California chaparral ecosystems, and poses a significant threat to the survival of the species.

Urban development is a significant threat to Hermes copper. Past losses of the species to urban development are exceeded only by losses to fire, and include many populations recorded from El Cajon, Fairmont Canyon, Kearny Mesa, Scripps Gateway, and numerous sites near the City of San Diego urban core. Several remaining known populations are located in areas like Jamul and Fallbrook facing significant urban development pressure.

Hermes copper is also endangered by prescribed fire, global climate change, and delayed federal protection. Existing conservation laws, regulations, and policies like the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Plan provide few protections for the species.

Hermes copper has never received formal Endangered Species Act (also “ESA”) protection despite 20 years of official knowledge of the species’ imperiled status. Significant impacts to Hermes copper from the 2003 fires were widely publicized, yet the Bush administration has taken no action over the following year to provide protections for the species.

Specific neglect of Hermes copper reaches back as far as the Reagan administration. The species was designated as a category 2 candidate for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (also “Service”) as early as 1984 and maintained on subsequent candidate lists through 1994. But the species’ candidacy was removed when the agency unilaterally abolished the category 2 candidates list in 1996.

The San Diego Biodiversity Project submitted a petition to list Hermes copper as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in May 1991 (Hogan 1991). The Service rejected the petition on a cynical technicality in 1993, alleging that the petition lacked necessary substantial information while simultaneously acknowledging the agency actually already possessed the missing information (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1993).

Despite the Service’s negative conclusion on the petition, the agency nevertheless concluded that listing the species as endangered may be warranted, and promised to conduct a status review. However, a Freedom of Information Act request to the Service in 2004 revealed no evidence of any status review for Hermes copper. The Service has apparently taken no further action to protect the species despite huge impacts from the 2003 fires, years of concern over its conservation status, a well-documented and significant trend toward extinction, and the availability of substantial information in support of listing.

Formal recognition of Hermes copper as an endangered species should increase available conservation resources and education on the status of the species. Increased conservation and education should include improved recognition by responsible agencies of the species’ imperiled status and of the significant threat posed by fire and urban development. Formal listing protection should result in preparation of a recovery plan for Hermes copper by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Formal listing protection should also result in increased funding availability for recovery activities, and increased conservation activities by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, the City and County of San Diego, and others. Conservation activities should include expanded limits on urban development, improved fire suppression in and around remaining populations, restoration of spiny redberry stands, patrols for unauthorized campfires and arsonists, efforts to increase the number of Hermes copper populations and individuals, and other specific recovery measures.

October 19, 2005
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