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Karner blue butterflyCelebrating 40 years of protecting Wisconsin's natural heritage

Listen to WPR

Catch DNR Karner Recovery Coordinator Bob Hess on The Larry Meiller Show live from 11-11:45 July 25 on these WPR Ideas Network stations or online. If you miss the show, you can still listen to the archives

Comeback Champ

Robert Welch and his wife, the late Debra Martin, have played a vital role in the recovery of the Karner blue butterfly since its listing on the federal register in 1992. Long before DNR started a Karner recovery program, Bob and Deb met frequently with DNR biologists and university researchers to evaluate Karner habitat needs and helped define the characteristics of the Karner range in Wisconsin.

Bob, a middle school teacher at Waupaca, used their property as an outdoor laboratory, teaching students about oak and pine barrens communities, and especially about Karner blue butterflies. Known officially as the Waupaca Biological Field Station, their outdoor classroom hosted hundreds of young scientists over the years who helped conduct many formal and informal research projects.

Bob and Deb were dedicated cooperators with the DNR Karner recovery program as soon as it started up in 2006. By 2008 they officially committed their 160-acre property to Karner recovery under a conservation easement and it provides a key connecting corridor between state-owned Karner recovery properties. Since then they and their students have conducted annual Karner surveys on the Field Station. The numbers they report contribute significantly to the recovery goals for Karner populations in the area.

Following Debra's passing in 2010, Bob has continued their work at the Waupaca Biological Field Station. He mentors biological science students and provides advice and assistance to neighbors in restoring barrens and Karner blue habitat.

Get involved

There are many opportunities for citizens to support conservation of the Karner blue and its habitat.

Fussy eaters

The Karner blue butterfly is on the federal endangered species list and it's easy to understand why: Their babies are fussy eaters. The Karner caterpillar only eats the leaves and soft tissues of wild lupine, a plant found in oak and pine barrens communities and sometimes in dry prairies. Such habitats have been lost in Wisconsin and elsewhere due to agriculture, development, fire suppression, and other natural processes that maintained the open areas necessary for Karner survival. Now public and private partners are working to reverse the trend and bring more Karners back to Wisconsin's skies.

Partners help Karners fly high on gossamer wings

A trio of maturing partnerships, joined this year by a fourth, are helping grow protect and restore Karners and their habitat and have contributed to making Wisconsin's Karner population the world's largest. Since 1999, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and 40 other partners have implemented a statewide Habitat Conservation Plan that allows certain activities - such as roadside maintenance and timber harvests in Karner habitat - but makes sure those activities are carried out in ways that conserve and restore the butterfly and its habitat, like waiting to mow until after the butterflies have completed their annual flights.

A second partnership effort, the federal Partners for Fish & Wildlife, provides private landowners with technical and financial incentives to plant and maintain the right plants in the butterfly's range. A third partnership seeks to restore independent Karner populations of 3,000 to 6,000 butterflies each on 11 different state-owned and private properties, and a fourth component began in earnest this year with the training and deployment of volunteers to help conduct surveys for the butterflies and the plants they use.

Read more about Karner blues and their recovery

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine has chronicled the unfolding saga of this small, rare butterfly and the people working to protect it. Enjoy these stories:

Fast Facts

Scientific name: Lycaeides melissa samuelis
The Karner blue butterfly was listed in 1992 as a federally endangered species. It's relatively common in Wisconsin for an Endangered Species and we nurture the world's largest population of these diminutive blue butterflies.

Identifying marks:
The adult Karner blue butterfly is about the size of a nickel, with a wingspan of about an inch. They can be identified by the bands of orange spots on the underside edge of its wings. The top sides of the male's wings are deep sky blue while those of the female are darker blue and brown with orange spots on the upper edges of both hind wings.

Don't get fooled! There are a lot of look-alike small blue butterflies. See our tips on identifying Karner blue butterflies.

Habits and habitat:
The Karner blue butterfly usually has two generations, and thus two prolonged hatches, each year. In April, caterpillars hatch from eggs laid the previous year and feed only on wild lupine plant leaves. By about mid-May, the caterpillars pupate and adult butterflies emerge from their cocoon-like chrysalis by the end of May or early June. These adults mate, laying their eggs in June on or near wild lupine plants. The eggs hatch about one week later and the caterpillars then feed for about three weeks. They then pupate and the summer's second generation of adult butterflies appears in July. These adults mate and lay eggs that will not hatch until the following spring.

More about Karner blue butterfly habitat

The pale green Karner blue butterfly caterpillar eats only wild lupine. Adult Karner blues feed on the nectar of wildflowers and get minerals from drying water puddles or dung.

Fun Fact:
Adult Karner blue butterflies live 5 to 7 days.

More about Karner blue butterflies