Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Globally Rare Butterfly Found At New Site In Huntingdon County; PennDOT Partners With Fish & Wildlife Service To Save Habitat

By Natalie DiDomenico, U.S. Fish & Wildlife

This story first appear on the Medium website August 25, 2020--

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation partners with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to save vital pollinator habitat

From distant planets to penicillin, some of the greatest scientific discoveries have happened by chance. 
Betsy Leppo, an invertebrate zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, knows this all too well after learning about a new population of the globally rare frosted elfin butterfly in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.
“We were actually looking for a different rare butterfly at that time,” she said, “but in the process of all that, we just serendipitously encountered these naturalists in the field.” 
Naturalists John and Becky Peplinski told them about the elfin site. It was the first new site documented in Pennsylvania in recent decades.
When U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Nicole Ranalli got word of the discovery, she was surprised by the depth of their survey records, complete with photos and observation dates. 
“They had some really detailed information,” she said. “You don’t generally get that.”
Pennsylvania now had two sites with confirmed populations of frosted elfin. For Leppo and Ranalli, it was a sign the species could make a comeback.
Frosted elfin records stretch as far back as the early 1800s. Scientists have extensive information about sites where the butterfly used to be, and less data about where they persist. 
The Service and state agencies recently invested in surveys across the Northeast to update records.
While the new site is not in past records, Leppo doesn’t think they were far away because unlike monarch butterflies, frosted elfin aren’t able to travel long distances. 
“Their populations do move around a little bit,” Leppo explained. “But they’re not strong fliers. Odds are there was a population around there, just not in that exact spot.”
The frosted elfin’s historic range is far and wide. It stretches down the entire east coast from southern Canada to Florida and goes as west as Texas. 
But this rare butterfly has been extirpated from Vermont, Georgia and Illinois due to the gradual disappearance of suitable habitat.
This invertebrate is not associated with a conventional butterfly habitat. Instead of living in lush meadows, frosted elfin, along with the plants upon which they lay eggs and their caterpillars feed, thrive in young habitats with dry, sandy soil. 
The elfin populations of Pennsylvania have only been observed using yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) for their life cycle, but other populations in the butterfly’s extensive range also use lupine as their host plant.
But these spaces can be quite high maintenance. The habitat declines if not properly maintained. It will then grow into a forest. 
As plants grow, the area becomes shaded and less dry. Exotic plants like honeysuckle and burning bush can take over a site, stripping native plants of space and resources. Neither the frosted elfin nor the wild indigo can keep up.
As fields and meadows continue to grow, trees and shrubs begin to appear, until the habitat is no longer young. Mature forests are important — they are home to native reptiles, birds, and mammals. 
But not all species thrive in these habitats, and without proper maintenance, mature forests take over. It’s all about balance.
Fire can regenerate habitat because it keeps the soil dry and barren and prevents overgrowth. 
Hundreds of years ago, lightning strikes caused some of these fires. Native Americans would prescribe burns to modify landscapes, and early man-made railroads used to produce unintended sparks from the tracks, resulting in flames. 
But with improved technology and the system of fire response in place to protect property and people, wildfire in this species’ range is rare. In other parts of their range, prescribed fire is used to manage habitat for frosted elfin.
Scientists have found another way to manage the frosted elfin habitat — mowing. And there’s evidence that it has positive benefits. 
At a separate Pennsylvania location, the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has mowed a habitat area in an attempt to prevent overgrowth.
“It’s not the same host plant, but the partners program went in this spring and did a mowing and the lupine responded really well. It came up all over the place and flowered and actually produced fruit,” Ranalli said. 
Although this may not be the plant used by the elfin in Pennsylvania, it provides promising signs for these conservation efforts.
And this pollinator is not the only animal that benefits from mowing. The meadows are home to many unique species that thrive in the dry, barren landscape. Examples include the American woodcock, golden winged warbler and many others.
The frosted elfin will be up for review under the Endangered Species Act in 2023 to determine whether listing as threatened or endangered is necessary. 
But partners aren’t waiting for that decision. Instead, scientists, land managers and others are taking a proactive approach by acting now. Ranalli thinks this should be a model for the protection of all at-risk and endangered species.
“It’s what we should be doing for every species,” she said. “And if the butterfly does end up needing the protection, then we have a lot more information on what we can do to help the species recover. This proactive conservation is the future.”
Pollinators take to the streets
Federal and state wildlife agencies have not been alone in their fight to save the frosted elfin — or other pollinators, for that matter. Advocates have been stepping up from all sorts of organizations. 
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has partnered with the Service to establish the best practices for mowing and other maintenance along rest stops and highways.
Their approach is programmatic. Created in congruence with the Service’s Policy Regarding Voluntary Prelisting Conservation Actions, the PennDOT Prelisting Pollinator Conservation Program aims to protect pollinators and prevent the need to list them as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. 
The program seeks to benefit multiple species of pollinators. Among them are the regal fritillary, the monarch butterfly, the yellow-banded bumble bee, and the frosted elfin.
“There have been changes to our policies,” PennDOT environmental planning manager Drew Ames said. “A lot of it has to do with not mowing when wildflowers are blooming or only mowing to a certain height. We often trim the trees along roadways. When you get rid of that tree canopy, the flowers tend to grow more.”
Improvement of pollinator habitat is not the only benefit. In return for conservation actions that benefit pollinators, PennDOT receives credits that can be used to offset future projects that might negatively impact pollinators. 
And by planning ahead for conservation challenges, PennDOT also saves money and resources.
“We will actually be saving money on mowing, and of course, there’s the benefit to the species,” Ames said. “If we’re doing things to benefit the species in the long term, and there is a project that might impact their habitat, the outcome is in favor of the species.”
There is also a long-term benefit. By making changes to PennDOT policy, future transportation projects will be encouraged to minimize and mitigate harm to pollinator species.
Leppo is glad the elfin is getting the attention it needs to recover, especially since Pennsylvania does not have a state agency responsible for the protection of terrestrial insects.
“Folks at different state agencies have been very supportive and helpful regarding access to the two known frosted elfin sites, coordinating outreach to the right-of-way management companies to talk about their vegetation control practices, beginning to do some invasive species control, and planning other habitat management at these sites,” Leppo said.
The attention that the elfin and pollinators are getting at the federal level provides incentive and legitimacy, and helps rally funding, she said. But her key point is that partners are stepping up voluntarily.
The frosted elfin’s federal status is yet to be determined, but the discovery in Pennsylvania provides conservationists with optimism for the future.
“Our hope is that the butterfly is out there in other places,” Ranalli said. “We just haven’t found it yet.”
(Photo: Frosted Elfin Butterfly, preferred meadow habitat.)

Natalie DiDomenico is a Science Communication Contractor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

(Reprinted from Medium, August 25, 2020.)
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[Posted: Sept. 8, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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