For Immediate Release, January 17, 2008


Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Dave Hogan, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 809-9244

Wildlife Service Proposes Slashing Protected Habitat for
Beleaguered Southern California Butterfly

Quino Checkerspot, Already Reeling From Development, Global Warming, and Wildfires,
Faces Two-Thirds Cut in Critical Habitat

SAN FRANCISCO— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today cynically proposed cutting the designated critical habitat for the extremely endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly by two-thirds, from 171,605 acres to just 59,558 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 outrageous proposal is a recipe for extinction of the Quino checkerspot butterfly,” said Jeff MiIler, conservation advocate 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 – this proposal is like encountering a burn victim whose house is going up in flames, that is also dying of dehydration, and mugging them.”

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 if ever a species needed protection of unoccupied suitable habitat for recovery, this species is it,” said Dave Hogan, a conservation manager with the Center.

The species is now reduced to only 10 areas in Riverside and San Diego counties and four in Baja. Populations in all but three of these areas contained fewer than five individual butterflies in 2000. 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 critical habitat and 27 percent of known occurrences of the Quino checkerspot and fires in 2005 burned even more occupied habitat. The fires also helped the spread of invasive plants into checkerspot habitat, reducing butterfly host plants.

The Quino checkerspot is not even a covered species under the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Plan. In 2006 a federal judge ruled that the plan does not sufficiently protect other endangered and threatened species and illegally allowed major development impacts with inadequate conservation measures. The court found that funding for the plan is "speculative and unlikely," sending the plan back to the Fish and Wildlife Service to try again. A 2005 report revealed that promised conservation measures in Western Riverside County’s conservation plan are not keeping pace with the rapid incursion of urban development into natural places, in violation of the permit. Fish and Wildlife proposes excluding 1,684 acres of critical habitat within the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Plan area, and 37,245 acres of habitat within the Western Riverside Multiple Species Conservation Plan area.

“Concerns have been raised for years by scientists and conservationists that these plans are contributing to the extinction of listed species and serve as a blank check for habitat destruction for developers,” said Miller. “Why is the Fish and Wildlife Service relying on the broken promises of flawed conservation plans with speculative and unlikely funding to exclude core checkerspot areas from critical habitat protections? They provide no assurance of effective conservation on those lands that would be excluded from the designation.”

Although new Quino checkerspot observation locations have been discovered in Riverside and San Diego Counties since 2000, and several population outbreaks (several containing hundreds to up to a thousand butterflies) were documented, many known habitat areas have been lost to development. And, for the first time since the species was listed, no Quino checkerspots were observed during official Riverside County surveys or monitoring of core habitat areas in 2007.  

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 proposed designation would reduce that to 98,487 acres, but the agency is also attempting to illegally exclude 38,929 acres within the San Diego and Western Riverside Habitat Conservation Plan areas, leaving just 59,558 protected acres.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to designate critical habitat areas encompassing all lands “essential to the conservation” of the checkerspot. A 2005 peer-reviewed study in the journal BioScience showed that that endangered species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species without it. Under the Bush administration, the agency has consistently slashed the size of proposed critical habitats, cutting critical habitats on average by 75 percent from 2000 to 2003.

A recovery plan for the Quino checkerspot published in 2003 identified seven core habitat areas and 18 non-core butterfly occurrence that were to be protected. Today’s proposal would protect 10 enlarged units of critical habitat where the species currently occurs, but omits known butterfly areas that are considered “non-core” occurrences as not essential for recovery.

Rapid climate change poses a major threat to the Quino checkerspot and other butterflies because of reduced butterfly growth rates and increasing subpopulation extirpation rates. Quino checkerspot populations have shifted northward and upward in elevation due to global warming and a drying climate. Quino checkerspots 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 were some of the first evidence that species are already shifting their range due to global warming.

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 nonprofit conservation organization with more than 40,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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