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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Karner blues are the size of your thumbnail and easily confused with other blue flits. © Steve Apps
Karner blues are the size of your thumbnail and easily confused with other blue flits.

© Steve Apps

June 2007

Small, blue and bountiful

Wisconsin is home to more Karner blues than anywhere else in the world.

Natasha Kassulke

Habitat Conservation Plan
Landowners with a love of lupine
Benefiting the barrens
Partnerships with a conservation ethicCelebrating success
Butterfly Hot Line
Karner Blue Butterfly Festival
Karner blues and some look alikes

Steve Apps was on a mission to capture the Karner blue butterfly on camera as it dined and danced about the wild purple lupines and orange butterfly weed on his family land in Wild Rose, Wis.

No net. No jar. With just a Karner blue "Wisconsin Wildcard" in his pocket and a camera around his neck, he set out one sunny day last summer to stalk the thumbnail-sized federally endangered butterfly.

After a day scoping the central Wisconsin farmstead, Apps crouched down, focused his camera and claimed victory. He successfully photographed a tiny blue butterfly that was resting after a cruise across the sandy soil. But was it a Karner blue?

David Lentz, DNR Karner blue Habitat Conservation Plan implementation coordinator, confirmed it was a blue butterfly all right. But it wasn't a Karner blue.

You mean there is more than one tiny blue butterfly in Wisconsin? Sure, says Lentz. "There are lots of blue butterflies." But there is just one species that is a Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis Nabakov).

Lentz offered some advice for finding and identifying the Karner. The most vital piece of information: The Karner blue life cycle is dependent on the wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) plant, which prefers dry soils in open woods and clearings such as pine and oak savannas and barrens. Wild lupine leaves are the only food source of the Karner blue butterfly caterpillar. The presence of Karners can be confirmed by "instar damage" – chewing damage to the lupine leaves by the caterpillars.

Orange spots on the edge of the underwing distinguish Karner blues from other blue butterflies. Two generations of this butterfly occur each year. Karner blues do not migrate like the monarch. Instead, they survive Wisconsin winters as eggs and their caterpillars hatch in April. In early June the adult butterfly emerges and begins to feed. A couple of weeks later, the Karners lay eggs on or near wild lupine and the cycle begins again with adults emerging in mid-July. This second group of adults lays eggs to overwinter by mid-August.

Take two.

Apps returned to the extensive lupine patch his family had proudly preserved. He used the tried-and-true technique of butterfly stalking – go slow and stay low.

The third time was the charm when Steve Apps set out to photograph the tiny Karner blue. © Natasha Kassulke
The third time was the charm when Steve Apps set out to photograph the tiny Karner blue.

© Natasha Kassulke

His patience paid off and he got a shot. It was blue. It was a butterfly. But, Lentz let him down gently, again confirming that the specimen was not a Karner blue.

Lentz offered additional advice. The male and female Karner blue differ in coloration and pattern. On the topside, the male's wings are a light silvery blue to dark blue with narrow black margins. On the female, the topside is grayish brown especially on the outer portions) to blue, with irregular bands of orange crescents inside the narrow black border.

Wings of both male and female Karners have the same pale gray underside, with a continuous band of orange crescents inside iridescent blue spots along the edges.

Take three.

With coaching from Lentz on best times to see the butterfly, Apps finally caught an image of a fluttering Karner blue as it landed on a lupine leaf.

The key to photographing a Karner blue, Apps concludes: "First you've got to find one. Keep your camera and your 'Wisconsin Wildcard' nearby. Check with an expert to confirm that you've got a Karner blue. Dave Lentz's advice was very valuable."

Habitat Conservation Plan

It's no surprise the Karner blue proved so elusive, even to an experienced photographer like Apps. Habitat loss in the eastern states of the Karner blue's national range due to development and farming caused Karner blue populations to decrease; the species was listed as federally endangered on Dec. 14, 1992. This began a program to recover Karner blues across their entire national range.

Today there is great hope for the tiny lupine leap-frogger. Many healthy Karner blue populations are now known to occur in Wisconsin. In fact, there are more Karners found here than any other place on earth. Good populations of Karner blues also are found in Michigan and Indiana, with many fewer still in New York, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Ohio.

The butterfly's continued survival in Wisconsin is the result of a DNR statewide habitat conservation plan (HCP). Formalized in 1999, the Wisconsin HCP helps protect the Karner blue butterfly and is the first comprehensive statewide conservation agreement authorized under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, private landowners and public land managers to support sustainable Karner blue habitat management actions that are in step with normal land management activities on the landscape.

The HCP agreement allows Wisconsin land managers to continue operating in and around Karner blue habitat provided they modify their activities to minimize the incidental take (death, harm or harassment) of Karner blues.

One innovative aspect of the HCP is a single incidental take permit for landowners in the state. The Wisconsin plan automatically covers all landowners who join it under one permit. The approach, Lentz says, reduces the administrative load for those involved and makes the process less arduous for landowners.

Landowners with a love of lupine

Brothers Jerry and Donald Apps are two Waushara County landowners with Karner blues on their adjacent properties. Jerry (Steve's father) owns 65 acres and Donald (Steve's uncle) owns another 35 acres. They became interested in the butterfly by first learning about lupine.

Jerry recalls that when he bought the property in 1966 there was one small patch of lupine on the southeast side. He researched the lupine and shared his findings in an outdoor column he authored. But he hadn't thought much about the Karner blue.

"I suspected that Karner blues were always there but didn't know what they looked like," Jerry says. "Now I've come to realize that I was looking at those little blue butterflies for 30 years and always thought they were cabbage worm butterflies." Jerry credits Lentz for setting him straight after a visit to the property.

Karner blues and some look alikes
Several little blue flits look similar. Take a closer look at these similar one-inch butterflies inhabiting the same sort of habitat as the Karner blue.

The eastern tailed blue is just one of the look-alikes that inhabit the same territory. © Steve Apps Eastern tailed blue (Everes comyntas)
Edwards' hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii)
Spring azure (Celastrina ladon)
Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis Nabakov)

The eastern tailed blue is just one of the look-alikes that inhabit the same territory. © Steve Apps

Seven years ago, Jerry cleared a field south of his cabin. Realizing how difficult it can be to transplant lupine, he let nature do the work. Lupine seeds spread by the wind sprouted on the cleared ground. Now the field is packed with lupine plants. Last summer, Jerry found another patch had sprouted about a half-mile away.

"Now there are so many Karners at times you have to look out so you don't step on one," Jerry says. Donald also has been involved in Karner blue habitat protection and has developed a fondness for the blue beauty.

"I noticed a lot of blue butterflies in the garden sitting in the sun," Donald says. "Once I saw about 50 of them. I like knowing that they are there and I keep the brush clear to make sure the lupines survive and the Karners have places to lay their eggs."

Benefiting the barrens

The Karner blue HCP is as much about protecting the rare pine barrens and oak savannas the Karner inhabits as it is about protecting the butterfly. These ecosystems have become increasingly rare in their natural ranges.

The 2.3 million acres of Wisconsin pine barrens have changed tremendously since European settlement. Originally a mosaic of open, grassy, fire-dependent communities, today's pine barrens thrive on only a fraction of the original acreage.

Fire is extremely important in maintaining the inherently diverse pine barrens. But fire suppression, extensive tree planting, and conversion to agriculture have drastically changed Wisconsin's landscape. The remaining barrens have become increasingly fragmented and isolated, too small to support wildlife species that depend on this specific habitat, like the Karner.

However, when an area is kept clear by periodic disturbances, such as prescribed burning, timber harvests and mowing, open spaces are created where native grasses and flowers have a chance to flourish. When the habitat is restored, the wildlife returns.

This partnership is implementing the Wisconsin HCP on more than 260,000 acres of potential and existing butterfly habitat. And it is working. The barrens are rebounding.

Partnerships with a conservation ethic

Mike Engel, of the Private Lands Office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, is working with about 150 landowners in the Karner blue range in Wisconsin, including municipalities, companies and farmers. After gauging their interest in participating in a conservation plan, Engel meets with the landowners, walks the land and often sits down at their kitchen tables to discuss their goals and develop management plans.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers technical and financial assistance for habitat conservation in the Karner blue range because of the butterfly's endangered status. Engel asks interested landowners to sign a 10-year agreement to manage the land for Karner blue habitat.

Butterfly Hot Line
Call the toll-free Karner Blue Butterfly Hot Line – (877) 4KARNER (452-7637)

  • to request information or assistance about Karner blues or the habitat conservation plan
  • to listen to a "flight status" report (May-August only)
  • to report qualified observations on wild lupine, Karner blue larva feeding damage or flying adults.
Butterflies and Moths of North America is a searchable database of verified butterfly and moth records in the United States and Mexico. This site includes dynamic distribution maps, photographs, species accounts, and species checklists for each county in the U.S. and each state in Mexico.

Get the buzz on butterflies at the North American Butterfly Association.

"We use the 'Field of Dreams' approach," Engel says. "If we make smart decisions about the habitat and manage it for the Karner, the butterfly will come."

Engel says some landowners want to manage their land because of their specific interest in the Karner blue. Others want to make their land less fire-prone or create turkey habitat. "Good turkey habitat is good Karner habitat," Engel says.

It hasn't been difficult to get landowners to sign up. "Wisconsin has such a strong land ethic and conservation ethic that most landowners I work with want to do the right thing," says Engel.

Matt Krumenauer agrees. He served on the oversight committee for the corridor partners in the HCP and chaired the group for three years.

"The partners had a shared interest," Krumenauer says. "They needed the (incidental) take permit to get their work done and they needed the benefit of belonging to a larger group that could provide knowledge and resources to draw from. There was a lot of trust and interaction among the individuals involved."

Today, while no longer working for a utility, Krumenauer remains involved in Karner blue habitat protection.

"You'll see me popping up in a lupine patch or two this summer," Krumenauer says.

Echoing Engel, Krumenauer says he is most proud of seeing participants rally around a common cause and improve their conservation management skills because it is the right thing to do.

"It's not a bald eagle or a cute seal or a majestic tiger," Krumenauer says. "It's a butterfly. But people have really rallied around it and become engaged in habitat protection and management."

He says managing for Karner blue habitat is an excellent fit with managing utility corridors. Rights-of-way for utilities – transmission lines and pipelines – need to be relatively clear of vegetation to allow for easy access. These open canopy corridors also link otherwise separated land, creating a dispersal route that works like a railway for Karner blue movement.

Forty major land managers participate in the HCP as partners, including representatives from the forest industry, county forests, utility companies, The Nature Conservancy, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection and many roadway managers including the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The partnership works with volunteer groups and concerned citizens across a vast area of Wisconsin to incorporate consideration of the Karner blue in land-use decisions and conservation work.

For instance, the Adams County Highway Department changed roadside mowing practices to accommodate the Karner blues.

"When we do ditch cleaning and road shoulder maintenance, we do some mitigation and replant the area into prairie grasses and wildflowers including lupine," says Ron Chamberlain, county highway commissioner. "It's a win-win situation for the butterfly and our partners. It makes our job easier to cooperate upfront rather than be regulated after the fact."

Other wildlife species benefit from the Karner blue's celebrity and good fortune. Kirtland's warblers (Dendroica kirtlandii), slender glass lizards (Ophisaurus attenuatus), eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (Sistrurus c. catenatus), and Blanding's and wood turtles (Emydoidea blandingi and Clemmys insculpta) share Karner habitat and get a boost when that habitat is enhanced and increased.

Celebrating success

Education and outreach are paramount to the program's success. Lentz works with schools and communities to celebrate the Karner's rebound and help more people learn about the value of conservation.

His desk at the DNR central office in Madison is surrounded by awards, photos and cards thanking him for his efforts. Blue butterfly memorabilia appear mysteriously on his desk, left by other DNR staff. The attention is gratifying.

So is seeing a phenomenon that has become a festival. Black River Falls hosts the Karner Blue Butterfly Festival on the second Saturday every July (this year July 14th), attracting more than 2,000 people. Why Black River Falls? Prime Karner blue habitat is adjacent to the Black River State Forest in Jackson County.

Lentz attended the first festival in 1996 and has been going ever since. Many festival participants, from Harley-riding bikers to sunscreen-slathered butterfly stalkers, arrive wearing blue wings as a sign of solidarity with the butterfly. The reigning Karner Blue Butterfly Princess must learn as much as she can about the species. Trolley tours skirt the nearby Bauer Brockway Barrens habitat site and participants can visit the Karner Blue Education Center at the festival to learn more. The festival celebrates the fact that endangered species protection can be part of Wisconsin's cultural as well as its natural heritage.

"It's satisfying to know that you are working on something of lasting significance," Lentz says. "We have a butterfly and an ecosystem that is rare in the world. And we have it right here in Wisconsin."

Natasha Kassulke is a public affairs manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Karner Blue Butterfly Festival
DATE: Saturday, July 14, 2007
TIME: 8 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.
LOCATION: Main Street in Black River Falls

DESCRIPTION: The Karner Blue Butterfly Festival, through the ongoing efforts of the downtown association and Black River Falls' residents, showcases the Karner blue butterfly. This beautiful creature is threatened by the decline in prairie areas and by its dependence on the wild lupine plant. Festival events include: butterfly princess contest, pancake breakfast, 5K-10K run-race, grand parade, artists and crafters, "turn of the century" trolley rides, brewery tours, historical museum tours, great food, musical entertainment and much more. To learn more about the Karner blue butterfly you can visit the Karner Blue Education Center at the festival and take in a guided old-fashioned trolley tour of the Bauer Brockway Barrens, local home of the Karner blue.

FOR INFORMATION: Visit Karner Blue Butterfly or call (715) 284-2503.