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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 4, 2011

Karner blues raised in captivity let hope take wing

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — Hope is on the rise for the Karner blue butterfly, a native species of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve that has been on the federal endangered list for decades.

The number of Karner blue butterflies in the preserve dropped from millions in the 1940s, to 65,000 in 1980, to barely 1,000 in the year 2000. The population would need to reach 3,000 in order to be considered sustainable.

The dramatic reduction in the number of Karner blues in the Pine Bush is attributed to decades of development wiping out their natural habitat, which includes native grasses and lupines.

In an effort to re-populate the preserve and get the butterfly off of the endangered species list, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission has been working in conjunction with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to practice “accelerated colonization.”

The process involves capturing female butterflies from wild sites, then raising the caterpillars that hatch from their eggs in captivity until they are adults. The adult butterflies are then released into restored habitats.

Habitat restoration is another element of the re-population effort. The commission’s conservation director, Neil Gifford, said locust is being cleared out of areas that are being burned in the Pine Bush, and lupine is being re-planted there. Those burn sites are later used to release some of the butterflies raised in captivity.

The Karner blue eats blue lupine, and its survival is directly linked to the plant. Black locust is a non-native, invasive tree that pushes out the native plants that the butterflies need to survive.

The commission was awarded two grants, both from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, to help with the habitat restoration and the accelerated colonization. The grants, awarded in 2002 and 2005, total $464,289.

As of 2009, the number of Karner blues in the Pine Bush remained below 1,000. Gifford estimated that there are now roughly 2,700 Karner blues living in the pine barrens, although the exact numbers for 2011 have not been calculated. Gifford said the commission had released almost 1,500 butterflies within the past three weeks.

“We started releasing butterflies into the wild from captivity in 2009, and without the addition of any new animals to the release sites, the populations have remained the same,” said Gifford. He explained that the commission does not release butterflies to the same site more than once, in order to insure that the entire population doesn’t exist in one small area.

In 1991, when Gifford started with the commission, there were only nine sites in the Pine Bush where Karner blues lived, and now, with land preservation, acquisition, and habitat restoration, there are over 40.

“The butterflies are a long way from being sustainable, but there is a big improvement,” said Kathy O’Brien, with the endangered species unit of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Gifford said that, although 3,000 is the number that is considered sustainable, the commission’s goal is to have a population of 17,000. To be off of the list of endangered species, the population must be 3,000 or higher for a total of four out of five years. Gifford said 17,000 would be a safe cushion to prevent a big fluctuation one year from disrupting the pattern.

“I don’t anticipate that we will need to do the accelerated colonization for more than another five years in order to reach that number,” said Gifford.

“The Pine Bush has great potential,” concluded O’Brien. “The numbers are very encouraging.”

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