August 7, 2008

Appetite For Destruction

By Crable, Ad

FT. INDIANTOWN GAP - It is indeed an irony of the natural world that the largest colony of the beautiful regal fritillary butterfly east of the Mississippi is on a military reservation where the earth is blasted asunder, churned up and burned over. An ancient North American species, the regal is a large reddish-orange butterfly that has been described as a monarch butterfly dipped in chocolate. A butterfly of old fields, pastures and the plains of the prairie, it was once found regularly in Lancaster County -there were sightings as recently as 50 years ago - and over about two-thirds of the state.

But as its habitat disappeared and modern farming practices interrupted its life cycle, the regal has retreated drastically in the East and is now considered vulnerable to extinction in this part of the country.

In 1958, Charles Covell Jr., author of A Field Guide to the Moths of Eastern North America in the famed Roger Tory Peterson series of field guides, was stationed at the 17,150-acre Fort Indiantown Gap for training in the Army Reserve and collected several regals.

Now, FIG in Lebanon County is the regals' last stronghold in the East, about 1,000 strong. The General Assembly is currently considering a resolution to designate the regal fritillary as Pennsylvania's state butterfly.

A much smaller colony of about 100 has been identified at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant in southwestern Virginia.

The reason: Regals must have certain food plants for larvae, adult nectar sources and native warm season bunch grasses to shelter the adults and growing larvae.

Quite by happenstance, all that live firing of artillery, planes and grenades at FIG, that training of tanks and other tracked vehicles, and the occasional fires set by exploding ammunition has served up conditions for just the right grasslands and plants favored by regals. Namely, they are violets to host larva, little bluestem and broomsedge grasses for adults to hide and rest in, as well as milkweeds and native thistles as a source of nectar for adults.

Sniper rifles may not have sported flowers in their barrels, per the iconic 1960s image, but their firing has given regals a chance.

Since that perfect storm of radical disturbance became known by scientists and the military, parts of FIG have been intentionally doctored to favor the regal.

Management has been in place for about 10 years and stems from a lawsuit to protect the butterflies filed by the North American Butterfly Association against the Army and National Guard.

In 1998 the Army transferred FIG to the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which runs it as a training facility for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

The military has closed training in three regal research areas totaling 228 acres. It shows the sacrifice we're willing to make for habitat, says Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, FIG spokesman.

Fires, both intentional (since 2004) and those unintentional but expected from live firing, burn about 1,000 acres a year at FIG.

There currently are more than 900 acres of grassland habitat at FIG but there used to be much more in this valley of former farmland when it was purchased by the U.S. government in 1938.

FIG, in partnership with teams of scientists at Penn State and elsewhere, is mowing, intentionally burning and evicting trees and brush to create even more. The Nature Conservancy helped devise the management plan.

We sow, we cut, we spray, quips Joe Hovis, the DMVA's wildlife program manager at FIG for the last eight years. Even growth along the facility's labyrinth of roads is manipulated to guide traveling regals to prime areas and discourage them from flying off the installation onto golf courses and housing developments where they could face insecticides.

Regals are a primary beneficiary of the grassland manipulation, but so are a couple dozen birds and reptiles of concern that favor such habitat. Soldiers, too, will benefit from training in open areas with better sight distance.

By most accounts, the stewardship plan at FIG has been sailing along to most people's satisfaction. But a wave of concern and scrutiny was sparked by a firing range brush fire in April that burned through about 50 acres of regal habitat, including part of one of the off-limits research areas, where habitat has been intensively doctored to attract the butterflies.

There were fears that the fire incinerated regal caterpillars crawling through the grasses, damaging the fragile population. Plus, the use of even proscribed burns to hasten certain habitats is not universally embraced and the fire set those concerns smoldering.

No one knows how many regals might have died in the fire. But Hovis points out preliminary surveys show adult regals in the area are up 25 percent over last year. Plus, he says, part of the burned area was scheduled for a proscribed burn.

Hovis is solid disciple of burning to achieve desirable regal habitat. We used to think fire was detrimental to regals because fires kill larva, he says. We've found regals can survive proscribed fire. We only burn patches.

In a bouncy pickup truck, Hovis recently drove me to the scene of the fire. The area is completely swathed in green again and regenerating plants. There is no sign that it was scorched only two months ago.

Three weeks earlier, Hovis was carting around three influential Pennsylvania scientists the military has engaged to help handle management of regals at FIG. They had heard about the fire and wanted to see for themselves.

John Rollins, a curator of invertebrate zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, says he has been contacted by nervous regal watchers from around the world. He says he went to FIG fully expecting to be shocked by the effects of the recent burn.

But, he says, I came away with an unexpected outcome. There are no villains. I was positively impressed by what they're trying to do.

Another of those on the tour, Betsy Leppo, president of the Entomological Society of Pennsylvania, observes that the fire definitely precipitated a recent round of conversations. It's just raised people's awareness that there are burns that take place that weren't intended, so we need to revisit this.

It's not a question of whether fire should be used, the York resident says. Fire has been used for many butterfly habitats. It's a question of scale. It's kind of a careful dance.

Both Rollins and Hovis agree that the most crucial element in trying to help regals, both in determining mortality in burns and overall management, will be to find out where regals are in their various life stages. Scientists know where to find them as they flutter around as adults. But they know very little where they are for most of their brief lives and how they overwinter.

The larva is the holy grail, says Hovis. We only find them when they're large.

Rollins agrees. The future of this species is not likely to be the fate of the adult butterfly for which we've spent all this money and effort. What happens to eggs and in the early stages? A droplet of water can drown them.

Meanwhile, plans are moving cautiously ahead to try to re- establish the regal elsewhere in Pennsylvania to avoid having all the eggs in one basket, as Hovis wrote in a recent paper on regals.

Gettysburg National Military Park will likely be the first recipient. The park is increasing grassland in an attempt to replicate the landscape as it was during the battle.

In fact, a batch of regals from FIG was released at Gettysburg in 2005 but did not take. Better habitat may improve chances for another try, perhaps in 2009. A release might include adults from FIG and others hatched in a lab.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources also has expressed an interest in managing grasslands in state parks and possibly playing host to regals.

But Hovis observes that many possible hosts shy away from the regal. There are concerns about potential liability from harboring a threatened species.

Besides, butterflies are not sexy like elk or otters, two successful comeback stories in Pennsylvania because of restoration programs.

As Hovis says, Who wants a butterfly?

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