Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of Karner blue butterfly © Steve Apps

Wisconsin supports the world's largest populations of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly.
© Steve Apps

April 2011

Karner blue preservation linked to restoration

Volunteer network offers enthusiasts a personal stake in bringing back barrens.

Tracy Lee Karner

View footage of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly in its natural habitat, near Black River Falls Wisconsin:

This is not just about a butterfly. And this is not just another call for volunteers. The Karner Blue Butterfly (Kbb) Volunteer Network, while only in its infancy, is seeking to recruit and train people who want a personal stake in a long-term project. Kbb network volunteers invest in habitat close to home, and gain a personal attachment to a specific, unique natural place they have improved with their own hands.

Those who step forward will surprise someone. I surprised myself. My involvement was sparked through my life-long love of stories. What's the story behind the butterfly with my name (Karner) I wondered? I thought a quick answer would satisfy a fleeting curiosity, and move me on to the next story.

My questions about what is going on with the Karner blue butterfly in Wisconsin led me to Dave Lentz, who coordinates the Karner Blue Butterfly Habitat Conservation Plan Project for DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources. I was amazed to hear how more than 40 Karner Blue Butterfly (Kbb) Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) partners, who own land that the endangered butterfly inhabits, cooperated in managing the land and protecting their interests, while also protecting the butterfly.

In any group this large, there will be diverse backgrounds and opposing ideologies. But for more than 10 years, in what is considered the largest conservation effort in the nation, the Kbb HCP partners and the DNR have worked together in a rather nontraditional way, which Lentz says leaves landowners "clearly in the driver's seat [to] assume responsibility for being good land stewards."

It's an inspiring story of people working through a messy set of conflicts like grown-ups ought to, but too seldom do. I wanted to meet these Wisconsinites who were showing the world that Wisconsin does live up to its progressive state motto, "Forward!" So, Lentz invited me to the 2010 annual Habitat Conservation Plan Partners meeting. It was a celebration of people meeting their goals. This success raised the question, "What's next?"

Successful preservation should be followed by restoration.

But these are hard economic times, with cutbacks everywhere. Restoration requires funding for staff, transportation and equipment.

Or, maybe it can begin with just passion and vision. I was passionate about the story of how people can work together for a common goal. Cathy Carnes, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Bureau of Endangered Species, spoke up with a vision – what if volunteers helped?

Enthusiasm grew and Bob Hess, DNR's Kbb Recovery Project Coordinator, found himself with a full-time intern for summer 2010. Jodi Shaw, a graduating senior in conservation biology from UW-Eau Claire, worked with me (a volunteer), under Hess' direction, and with university oversight from Professor Paula Kleintjes Neff to launch the Kbb Volunteer Network.

Now we hope more volunteers will be inspired by the chance to become involved with this rare and dynamic ecosystem, to gain in-depth knowledge of the intertwined components and see how the community responds to restoration management. We envision people from diverse backgrounds bringing their expertise – conservationists; bird, butterfly, reptile and plant enthusiasts; or people, like me, who believe restoration is possible.

Photo of volunteer © Bryn Scriver
Kbb volunteers conduct invasive species control.
© Bryn Scriver

The ecological communities that the butterflies use historically known as "barrens," are not desolate places. Their name is a byproduct of a time when many humans viewed the earth as something to be dominated. The barrens' soils are sandy, dry, acidic and not productive for crops. Early European colonists proclaimed them worthless for cultivation, hence, their name.

Prior to European settlement of Wisconsin, pine and oak barrens covered 4.1 million acres, 12 percent of the Wisconsin landscape. This diverse vegetative structure included aged forest stands, wetlands, open areas of grasses, shrubs, herbaceous flowering plants and berries, and scattered trees. The dynamic landscape was a mosaic of communities tending toward succession.

Succession is the process by which tree species gain dominance, developing a high canopy shading shorter plants. Much of the forest understory gradually dies out from lack of sunlight. Many species, including the Karner blue butterfly and the wild lupine, on which Karner larvae exclusively feed, depend on the sunlight of open grassland.

Regular fire (from lightning or set by Native Americans) was the essential key to maintaining the barrens. After settlement, fire suppression let plants grow generation after generation. Then human development caused habitat fragmentation.

The decline is staggering as 84 percent of Wisconsin's original barrens have been irretrievably lost through development. Mike Dombeck, retired chief of the U.S. Forest Service and now professor at UW-Stevens Point, explains that of the state's remaining 50,000 acres of barrens, less than one third are considered good quality.

But "Forward" is Wisconsin's motto, and forward-thinking agencies and citizens are taking action to preserve and restore what remains.

In comparison to other states, Wisconsin still maintains a relatively high acreage of barrens communities in the northwest and central parts of the state. This recovery project enables concerned citizens – professional and amateur scientists, administrators, organizers, fundraisers, and even computer specialists – to step forward to work together, and enjoy these rare and exquisite natural communities. Retirees, empty-nesters, singles, families, Eagle Scouts and anyone who wants to take ownership in the process of preservation and restoration are welcome.

The barrens are home to beautiful lepidoptera including the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa), northern blue butterfly (Samuelis idas), frosted elfin butterfly (Callophrys irus) and the phlox moth (Schinia indiana). Birding enthusiasts want to protect the habitat of the globally rare Kirtland's warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii) and reptile fans desire to ensure that the slender glass lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus) and Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) can thrive.

These are the "places," or barrens areas, targeted for recovery efforts in Wisconsin.

In the Northeast:

  • White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, between Wautoma and Oshkosh;
  • Emmons Creek Barrens State Natural Area, near Waupaca;
  • Hartman Creek State Park, near Waupaca; and
  • Greenwood Wildlife Area, near Plainfield.

In Central Wisconsin:

  • Black River Falls State Forest;
  • Bauer Brockway State Natural Area, near Black River Falls;
  • Meadow Valley State Wildlife Management Area, northeast of Tomah (at Mather); and
  • Sandhill Wildlife Area, in Babcock, between Wisconsin Rapids and Black River Falls.

In the Northwest:

  • Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area, in Grantsburg;
  • Fish Lake State Wildlife Area, in Grantsburg; and
  • Kohler-Peet State Natural Area (part of Governor Knowles State Forest).

In 2010, network volunteers set up transects and performed field surveys. Some volunteers also conducted vegetation surveys, a tool for determining management strategies. When volunteers at Crex Meadows suggested they would like to return to the same place each year, they explained that it would give them a feeling of ownership and continuity, Hess was sensitive to their interests.

In returning to the same recovery zone ecosystem year after year, volunteers will have an opportunity to see how property assessment happens, observe restoration in process, and hopefully participate in invasive species control and other restoration activities. In helping to carry out the management plans over time, they will see whether their actions were successful.

Volunteers are in the process of creating a website, separate from the DNR but connected through a link from the DNR page. Those with computer skills, science writers, bloggers and photographers will develop and maintain a communication system.

People who talk about the human need for attachment to place understand the sense of interconnectedness, of a community or an ecosystem, of the planet and the life which inhabits it. I live near Crex Meadows. In only a year, I have made a personal connection to the landscape and environment there. It is becoming a component of my identity.

I return regularly to Crex Meadows for reflection and introspection about that community and my place within it, as a participant and as an observer. Previously, I had no knowledge of the barrens ecosystem, but now I know those are not merely "flowers;" they are wild lupine and butterfly milkweed. And those aren't "scrubby trees;" they're jack pines. I've learned that spring, before foliage grows dense, is the best time to spot a brown thrasher, which prefers to hide in thickets.

Memories (and photographs) of this place have accumulated. Even after the second butterfly flight ended last August, I continued to return to Crex Meadows because the place is part of me. The exhilarating sight and sound I enjoyed in October, of sandhill cranes gathering to roost at sunset, will never leave me. And the hope that our combined efforts may actually restore the barrens in Wisconsin is good tonic when news broadcasters dwell on environmental disasters.

I know I told you that it's not just about the butterfly. But there is something about watching a shimmering silvery-blue butterfly flit to a nearby blossom to sip nectar. Beauty makes it difficult for me to be dour.

And spring does continue to arrive every year. The Karner eggs laid late last summer will hatch. The first Karner flight will likely begin in May. The second brood will probably fly in July. We'll be out doing surveys to help assess which barrens management strategies should be applied where.

Perhaps you'd like to join us? If so, please email me: Tracy Lee Karner, and we'll discover the best way to connect you to our network.

Tracy Lee Karner is the volunteer coordinator for the Karner Blue Butterfly Restoration Project's Volunteer Network.