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Butterfly on a bomb range: Endangered Species Act at work

World Butterfly on a bomb range: Endangered Species Act at work

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Nov 25, 2019 12:00 am
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FORT BRAGG, North CarolinaIn theunlikely setting of the worlds most populated military installation, amid allthe regimented chaos, youll find the Endangered Species Act at work.

There, as a 400-pound explosiveresounds in the distance, a tiny Saint Francis Satyr butterfly flits among thesplotchy leaves, ready to lay as many as 100 eggs.

At one point, this brown andfrankly dull-looking butterfly could be found in only one place on Earth: FortBraggs artillery range.

Now, thanks in great measure tothe 46-year-old federal act, they are found in eight more placesthough all ofthem are on other parts of the Army base. And if all goes well, biologists willhave just seeded habitat No.10.

One of Earths rarest butterflyspecies, there are maybe 3,000 Saint Francis Satyrs. There are never going tobe enough of them to get off the endangered list, but theyre not about to goextinct either. They are permanent patients of the bureaucratic conservationhospital ward.

In some ways, the tiny butterflyis an ideal example of the more than 1,600 US species that have been protectedby the Endangered Species Act. Alive, but not exactly doing that well.

To some experts, just havingthese creatures around means the 46-year-old law has done its job. More than99.2 percent of the species protected by the act survive, The Associated Presshas found. Only 11 species were declared extinct.

On the other hand, only 39 USspeciesabout 2 percent of the overall numberhave made it off the endangeredlist because of recovery, including bald eagles and American alligators.

Species will remain in theEndangered Species Act hospital indefinitely. And I dont think thats afailure of the Endangered Species Act itself, says Jake Li, director forbiodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center in Washington.

The Endangered Species Act isthe safety net of last resort, says Gary Frazer, assistant director ofecological services at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers thelaw.

We list species after all othervehicles of protection have failed, he said.

The 1973 law, passed unanimouslyin the Senate, was designed to prevent species from going extinct and toprotect their habitat.

Under the law, it is unlawful toharass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collectendangered animals and plants, and it also forbids the elimination of theirhabitats.

Another species found at FortBraggthe red-cockaded woodpeckeris a case of success but at a cost of $408million over 19 years.

The woodpeckers live only inlongleaf pines, which have been disappearing across the Southeast for more thana century, due to development and suppression of fires.

In the 1980s and 1990s, effortsto save the woodpecker and their trees setoff a backlash among landowners whoworried about interference on their private property.

Wildlife officials were even shotat. Army officials werent happy either.

We couldnt maneuver. We couldntshoot because they were afraid the bird was going to blink out and go intoextinction, says former top Fort Bragg planning official Mike Lynch.

By the 1980s, the red-cockadedwoodpecker population was below 10,000 nationwide. Now, theyre well past 15,000just on military bases.

After failed efforts, biologistsand bureaucrats changed their approach.

Instead of prohibiting work onland the woodpecker needs, Fish and Wildlife Service officials allowedlandowners to make some changes, as long as they generally didnt hurt thebird. The Army set fires to regularly burn scrub.

The result? When Fort BraggEndangered Species Branch Chief Jackie Britcher started, in 1983, there werefewer than 300 woodpecker families on Fort Bragg. Now she counts 453 families.

Something is going right, shesays.

The Army has better land tomaneuver in and the community is taking pride in the woodpecker, Lynch says.

From 1998 to 2016, the federalgovernment tallied $20.5 billion in spending on individual species on theendangered list. Thats based on an annual per-species spending report that theFish and Wildlife Service sends to Congress, but that tally is notcomprehensive.

Seven species, mostly fish, ateup more than half of the money expended under the act, according to the annualaccounting figures.

About $3 million was spent tosave the Saint Francis Satyr butterfly.

Nick Haddad, a Michigan StateUniversity butterfly biologist and Saint Francis expert, regularly visits theartillery range.

He expected a moonscape, but foundbeauty.

Because no one was venturing intothe woods there, no one was dismantling beaver dams or snuffing out fires.Aside from munition fragments, the landscape was much like North Carolinabefore it was altered by humans.

The picky butterfly needs a touchof chaos in its habitat. It requires water, but not a lot. It thrives on fireto burn away overgrown plants, but not too much.

Now, Haddad and his teamreplicate those conditions elsewhere on base, and they watch the butterflypopulation grow.

After years of criticisms fromconservatives that the endangered species program is too cumbersome forindustry and landowners, President Donald J. Trumps administration has enacted33 different reforms.

Among them: a change in the rulesfor species that are threatened, the classification just below endangered.

Instead of mandating, in mostcases, that they get the same protection as endangered species, the new rulesallow for variations.

That is better management, saysthe Fish and Wildlife Services Frazer, adding, It allows us to regulatereally only those things that are important to conservation.

Noah Greenwald, endangeredspecies director of the Center for Biological Diversity, characterizes theregulations as a disaster.

While scientists across the globewarn of the coming extinction of a million species in the decades ahead, NickHaddad is determined that the Saint Francis Satyr butterfly wont be one ofthem.

This is the thing that gives me hope, Haddad says. Thats where the Endangered Species Act had an impact.

Image Credits: AP/Robert F. Bukaty