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Mt. Charleston’s butterflies: On the way to extinction?

Can we save them?

The Toiyabe Trails Jan/Feb/Mar 10

By: Launce Rake*

Spring Mountains Acastus Checkerspot butterfly

Spring Mountains Acastus Checkerspot butterfly basking in the sun on a rock. (Photo: Courtesy G.T. Austin & Data Smith LLC.)

As the weather turns colder and the winter snows blanket the Spring Mountains west of Las Vegas, visitors to the National Recreation Area can take comfort in the explosion of flowers and butterflies that the mountain meadows will bring in the spring. Unfortunately, there will likely be fewer butterflies next spring than the last. The latest trend has seen the likely extinction of at least one subspecies in the mountains (the Mount Charleston blue butterfly) and could see extinction in others.

I first wrote about the threats to the tiny butterflies on the mountain four years ago while a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun. In 2005, conservationists with the Urban Wildlands Group petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for emergency protections for the Mount Charleston Blue butterfly, a pastel blue denizen of the range’s alpine meadows. The federal agency ultimately refused to provide endangered species protections to the Mount Charleston Blue.

One of the major researchers of Lepidoptera in the Springs Mountains fears that the Blue is now extinct, and others are in real jeopardy.

All nine major species in the mountains are now at risk, says Bruce Boyd, a researcher who has studied butterflies and their habitats in the Spring Range for three decades. This fall, Boyd filed an emergency petition to list the Chlosyne acastus robusta (Spring Mountains Acastus Checkerspot butterfly) as an endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The last confirmed reports of sightings of the Mount Charleston Blue were two years ago. The Mount Charleston Blue was found only in alpine meadows at elevations of 5000 - 11,000 feet, and was heavily dependent on one type of plant (the Torrey’s milkvetch) as host for its larvae.

Boyd says more must be done if the Checkerspot, and potentially dozens of other undocumented species of moths and other insects, are going to survive in the mountains. Boyd says he last saw the Acastus Checkerspot more than two years ago. It has been at least two years since hikers last spotted a species they believed was the Mount Charleston Blue.

For me, the tragedy of any extinction of the butterflies is compounded by the fact that all the federal and Clark County officials I talked to four years ago assured me that the Mount Charleston Blue would be protected. Extinction wasn’t a possibility, they told me then. I hope it isn’t too late for the Acastus Checkerspot.

What you can do. Those who want to speak for the butterflies have a couple of options: (1) write to federal officials at Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Supervisor’s Office (1200 Franklin Way, Sparks, NV 89431) and (2) write to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Southern Nevada Field Office (4701 North Torrey Pines Dr., Las Vegas, NV 89130). Letting them know that you support the emergency petition for federal protection is a good first step.

* Launce was an environmental reporter for almost two decades before joining the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada in 2007 as communications director. When he has time, he likes to go hiking in the Spring Range.


Related Links

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Update! "Delays in protecting species spur lawsuits." The Las Vegas Sun (Feb. 19, 2010). The Center for Biological Diversity has filed lawsuits for 93 species, including one for Mount Charleston blue butterfly.

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"Blue butterfly’s status to be reviewed further." The Las Vegas Sun (Dec. 1, 2005).

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The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (SMNRA) by USDA Forest Service.

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Mt. Charleston blue butterfly info by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office.

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Torrey's milkvetch plant profile by the USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center (NPDC).

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"The sixth extinction: Somewhere on Earth, every 20 minutes, one animal species dies out. At this rate, we will lose 50% of all species by the end of the century. Time is running out to turn the tide," by Jeff Corwin. The LA Times opinion (November 30, 2009).

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