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Karner blue

The Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is a small blue butterfly, with a wingspan of only about one inch [1]. The famous novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, who was also a self-taught lepidopterist, identified the Karner blue as a distinct subspecies in 1944 [2]. The larvae of Karner blue butterflies feed exclusively on wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), and thus the Karner blue’s range is restricted to areas that support this species of lupine [3]. Lupine is an early successional plant historically associated with savanna and barrens habitats [3]. Lupine is adapted to dry, relatively infertile soils, and requires ecological disturbances to persist [3]. Much of the lupine’s habitat has been destroyed by development and fragmentation, or degraded by successional changes [3]. The loss of suitable habitat resulted in a decline in Karner blue locations and numbers [3]. By the time the Karner blue was listed as endangered in 1992 the number of Karner blue butterflies had declined by at least 99% [4].

The Karner blue formerly occurred throughout a band extending across 12 states from Minnesota to Maine and into the Canadian province of Ontario [3]. Now it only occurs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, and Ohio [3]. At three sites (New Hampshire, Ohio, and West Gary, Indiana) populations are the result of reintroduction programs [3]. Wisconsin and Michigan have the largest remaining number of local populations with the greatest numbers of individuals [3].

WISCONSIN: Currently, Wisconsin supports the largest and most widespread Karner blue populations [5]. The largest extant population is found at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge [5] where, although the number of butterflies is highly variable between years, the population overall seems stable [6]. Systematic statewide surveys conducted in Wisconsin in 1990 found Karner blues at only 11 of 33 historical sites, but located an additional 23 previously unknown sites [3]. By 1993, an estimated 150 to 170 discrete Karner blue sites had been documented [3]. As of April 2002, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources had records of 311 Karner blue butterfly occurrences across 20 counties [1]. This reflects an 815% increase in recorded occurrences since listing [1]. In addition, as part of a statewide Habitat Conservation plan approved in 1999, the number of existing lupine sites has been monitored on lands participating in the partnership, and an increase in lupine occurrences has also been documented [1]. Other measures outlined in the HCP have also been initiated by the state [5]. The Wisconsin Gas Company now mows grass along its power lines later in the summer so that Karner blue caterpillars have time to metamorphose. Other agencies delay herbicide and pesticide spraying on their lands until the fall, after lupine and other plants have died [7]. It is now thought that the butterfly is likely to be more stable in Wisconsin than previously believed [1].

MICHIGAN: The Karner blue butterfly is currently found in 10 of the 11 Michigan counties in which it historically occurred [3]. These populations, however, have been reduced and highly fragmented [3]. Surveying efforts since listing have resulted in the discovery of more Karner blue subpopulations in Michigan and currently, nearly 200 subpopulations are known to occur in the state [8]. In northern Michigan, the largest Karner blue sub-population is found on the Huron-Munistee National Forest [8]. In southern Michigan, the largest subpopulation occurs on Allegan State Game Area where over 25,000 butterflies were counted in 2004 [9]. In 2005, surveys conducted on three game areas (Muskegan, Allegan, and Flat River) produced a total estimate of over 100,000 butterflies [8].

MINNESOTA: Karner blue butterflies currently only occur at the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area in Southeastern Minnesota [3]. An effort to accelerate colonization by translocating butterflies into an unoccupied site has met with some success [3]. Female Karner blues from the Whitewater Wildlife Management area were used to captive rear butterflies that were then released in 1999, 2001, and 2002 to Lupine Valley [3]. The butterflies have been extirpated at Cedar Creek Natural History Area, the only other location known to have once supported a Karner blue population in Minnesota [10].

NEW HAMPSHIRE: The last native population in New Hampshire occurred in the Concord Pine Barrens in a powerline right-of-way and in grassy safeways of the Concord Airport [3]. In 1983, this population was estimated to have 3,700 butterflies [3]. By 1994 numbers had dropped below 50 and in 2000 the population was extirpated [3]. A reintroduction program was started in 2001 [3] and in 2003 the butterfly began mating and reproducing in the wild again [11]. Biologists are now keeping watch over about 700 Karner larvae (caterpillars) in a captive rearing facility [11].

NEW YORK: The Saratoga Airport Site, a treeless prairie area maintained by mowing, currently supports the largest population of Karner blues in New York [3]. This population has remained large for several years now and is estimated to support around 10,000 butterflies [3]. Efforts are underway to connect this population with nearby sites [3].

In 1978, the Albany Pine Bush area supported an estimated 17,500 butterflies in one 300 acre site [3]. By the mid-1980's much of the Albany Pine Bush had been destroyed by development and degraded by introduction of non-Pine Bush species and natural succession [3]. By 1988, only 2,500 acres of the original 25,000 acres remained and the NY legislature decided to establish the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission to enact protections for the pine bush community [3]. In 1990, a fire management program was initiated to try to help restore habitat [3]. The Preserve currently contains approximately 3,010 protected acres, with a goal of a 4,610 acres [12]. Restoration and management of inland pitch pine-scrub oak barrens has been initiated on 1,248 acres since 1991 and 1,005 of these acres have received prescribed fire treatments [12]. Over 400 acres have received habitat restoration treatments specific for the Karner blue [13]. Despite these efforts, Karner blue butterfly numbers in the Albany Pine Bush remain low, with the population estimated to be approximately 1,000 individuals in 2005 [13]. However, the number of Karner blue butterflies observed at restoration sites is increasing and habitat restoration continues [13].

In the Saratoga Sandplains area, the Town of Wilton has joined with state and Federal agencies and The Nature Conservancy in the creation of the "Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park". The Park’s goal is a 3,000 acre protected area, the heart of which will contain a core population of Karner blues [3]. An active restoration and management program has been implemented on the several hundred acres currently protected in the Park [14]. Karner numbers are increasing at restoration sites here as well [14]. Karner blues are also being actively managed along powerline corridors in the Queensbury Sandplains, north of Saratoga Springs [14].

OHIO: The first Karner blue reintroduction effort was made in 1998 at The Nature Conservancy’s Kitty Todd Nature Preserve in Ohio [3]. It is hoped this effort will restore a viable population of Karner blues to the Oak Openings of northwest Ohio [3]. A total of 1,617 Karner blue butterflies have been released on the Preserve since 1998 [15]. The butterflies were raised at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio [3]. The effort appears to have been successful and there are reports of steadily increasing numbers of wild-born butterflies [16]. Importantly, this effort resulted in the development of successful captive propagation techniques [3]. In 2005, 315 Karner blue butterflies were released to a second site in the Oak Openings- The Nature Conservancy’s Moseley Barrens tract. This release will be evaluated in summer of 2006 [15].

INDIANA: Industrial, commercial, and residential development as well as road and airport construction; and gravel and sand mining depleted much of the Karner blue habitat in Indiana [10]. Historically, the Karner blue was reported from eight counties in Indiana [3]. In 1990, surveys found them in only two counties [3]. A population of several thousand is thought to occur at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore [3]. In addition, a reintroduction project was initiated by the Nature Conservancy to restore Karner blues to West Gary, Indiana after they were extirpated from the area in 2000 [3]. In the first two years, 1,000 butterflies were released at a Nature Conservancy preserve in West Gary [17]. Now, the Conservancy is monitoring the initial effort to determine the size of core populations as well as dispersal patterns within the preserve [17]. The reintroduction effort appears successful thus far and will be monitored to determine whether future captive rearing efforts are needed [17]. Karner blues were found at a second site in West Gary in 2002 [3].

[1] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fact Sheet: The Karner Blue Butterfly. Website (http://www.fws.gov/northeast/factshee.html) accessed January, 2006.
[2] Lipske, M. 2001. How a famed novelist became a godfather to a tiny endangered butterfly. National Wildlife 39(1). National Wildlife Federation.
[3] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Final Recovery Plan for the Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). Fort Snelling, Minnesota. 273 pp.
[4] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1997. The Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region. Website (http://www.fws.gov/midwest/Endangered/insects/kbb/karnerbl.html) accessed January, 2006.
[5] Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 1999. Wisconsin Karner Blue Butterfly Habitat Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. Madison, WI.
[6] King, R. 2006. Personal communication with Richard King, USFWS, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, WI.
[7] Glick, D. 2005. Back from the brink: not every endangered species is doomed -thanks to tough laws, dedicated researches, and plenty of money and effort, success stories abound. Smithsonian 36(6):54.
[8] Lerg, J. 2006. Personal communication with John Lerg, Allegan State Game Area, Department of Natural Resources, Natural Heritage Unit Lansing, MI.
[9] Lerg, J. 2004. Survey of Karner blue butterflies at Allegan State Game Area. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Available at (http://www4.gvsu.edu/karnerblue/hcpdocs/ASGA_2004_KBB_Survey.pdf).
[10] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1992. Proposed Endangered Status for the Karner Blue. Federal Register (57: 59236).
[11] New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. 2005. Newsroom: Season Starts Strong for Karner Blue Butterflies. Available at (http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Newsroom/News_2005/News_2005_Q2/KBB_update_052005.htm).
[12] Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission. 2002. Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. Albany, NY. 135pp.
[13] Gifford, N., K. Nelson, N.Tregger, K. Breisch and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. 2005. Karner Blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) population monitoring results – 2005: Albany Pine Bush Karner Blue Butterfly Recovery Unit. Albany, NY. 33 pp. Available at (http://www.albanypinebush.org).
[14] Gifford, N. 2006. Personal Communication with Neil Gifford, Conservation Director Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, The Nature Conservancy, Albany, NY.
[15] Tolson, P. 2006. Personal communication with Peter Tolson, Toledo Zoo, Toledo, OH.
[16] The Nature Conservancy. 2005. Habitat Gets a Boost at Kitty Todd Preserve. Website (http://nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/ohio/science/art12321.html) accessed January, 2006.
[17] The Nature Conservancy. 2005. The Karner Blue Reintroduction Effort. Website (http://nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/indiana/preserves/art12869.html) accessed January, 2006.

Banner photo © Phillip Colla