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Karner Blue Butterfly

OF WINGS AND WARRIORS

 

by Tim Wilder

With a mission to train more than 100,000 Army personnel annually, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, seems at first glance to be an unlikely haven for a rare butterfly. But since 1990, when the installation discovered the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) on its land, military training and the butterflies have coexisted, even thrived. A proactive management plan and a continuing dialogue with the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) have helped ensure this small creature's survival.

kblue.jpg (12801 bytes)
Photo by Ann B. Swengel

 

Fort McCoy encompasses 59,750 acres (24, 180 hectares) within what is known as the Driftless Area, part of the State left untouched by glaciers. Weathering of limestone and sandstone deposits formed the rugged ridge and valley system characteristic of the area. The installation is situated within the tension zone - a relatively narrow band across Wisconsin that separates the northern coniferous forests from the central deciduous forests - and within the transition zone between the western prairies and the eastern forests. Because of its location, Fort McCoy is home to a diversity of vegetation, including wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) - the only known host plant for Karner blue larvae.

 

Fort McCoy began its efforts to protect the Karner blue nearly 2 years before the butterfly was listed as an endangered species in 1992. After being informed of the butterfly's declining status in 1990, Fort McCoy planned surveys to determine the distribution of Karner blues and wild lupine. The surveys, which were conducted from 1991 to 1994, mapped more than 3,800 acres of lupine. About 94 percent of this lupine habitat was occupied by Karner blues. Fort McCoy officials began coordinating with the Service on the impact of both military and non- military activities affecting the Karner blue in 1992, and in early 1994 the Service issued the post a no jeopardy Biological Opinion. The document included "reasonable and prudent measures" and "terms and conditions." As part of its effort to fulfill those terms, Fort McCoy submitted a draft Karner Blue Butterfly Conservation Plan to the Service in 1995. The plan outlines the direction Fort McCoy will take to manage the Karner blue, while at the same time allowing for the successful completion of the installation's military training mission. The final conservation plan will be completed in 1997.

 

Numerous research projects on the Karner blue and its habitat continue at Fort McCoy. Projects begun in 1993 to assess the impacts of the current disturbance regime (military training, occasional fires, forest management) are particularly noteworthy. Wild lupine thrives on occasional habitat disturbance, which creates optimal seeded conditions. Activities that can create these conditions include disturbances from military training, logging operations, fire, and mowing. Through agreements with the Service, military activities disturb a portion of the installation's Karner blue habitat each year. To monitor the disturbance, biologists survey 65 study plots several times throughout the year. Information obtained from these surveys is used to estimate the total amount of disturbance occurring within Karner blue habitat. A mark-release-recapture study, conducted in 1994, helped installation personnel determine Karner blue dispersal distances and provided a population estimate for the study area. Not all disturbance is beneficial to the Karner blue. In May 1996, the post established 11 core areas to ensure that key habitat areas are protected from levels of disturbance that would harm the butterfly's habitat. The establishment of these core areas does not mean that they will not be disturbed, but that land managers will determine when disturbance should occur. Educating soldiers, civilian employees, and all who use the installation's lands about the butterfly and its habitat has been a vital dimension of the Karner blue program at Fort McCoy. Examples of education efforts include briefing unit leaders about endangered species concerns prior to field training and providing soldiers with maps of Karner blue habitat. Personnel also receive pocket-sized cards depicting wild lupine. In managing for the Karner blue, Fort McCoy has been able to comply with the Endangered Species Act while experiencing minimal impact on its military training mission. Since many activities occurring at Fort McCoy create and maintain the proper mix of habitat required by the species, the future looks bright for the Karner blue on the installation. Continued monitoring of the butterfly and its habitat will ensure that both soldiers and Karner blues can coexist on Fort McCoy's landscape far into the future. Tim Wilder is the endangered species biologist at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

 

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Last updated: April 1, 2014