Save the Pine Bush

by Grace Nichols, July 26, 2009


The survival of the Federally Protected Karner Blue Butterfly in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve is in doubt here in Albany – its numbers have been critically low for at least ten years. This butterfly was first named by Vladimir Nabokov, the famous writer, and became one of the best known insect species on the East Coast.

It is a beautiful brilliant blue color when it spreads its wings, while the undersides of the wings are pale gray and purple with black and orange spots. In the early 1970s, there were 28,000 Karner Blues in a tiny area of the Pine Bush where Crossgates is now located and countless more in other spots; Albany residents observed blue butterflies spread like solid blue blankets over the land.

The Karner Blue lives in a fire dependent ecosystem which has been traditionally maintained by manmade fires since before European contact with this area. It has as a host plant for its larva, wild blue lupine plants who provided food to the plant during its larval stage. The ecology of the Karner Blue is tied to this plant. The Karner Blue Butterfly is the symbol of the globally rare Albany Pine Bush Inland Pine Barrens ecosystem.

According to Neil Gifford, the Conservation Director of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, there are 1000-2000 Karner Blue Butterflies left in the 3010 acres of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. According to him, a total of 7,000 to 12,000 butterflies are necessary to have a sustainable population (personal correspondence with Neil Gifford, June 2009). Our regional Karner Blue expert, Kathy O’Brien of the NYS Department of Conservation’s Endangered Species Unit, reports that the reason populations are down is because of consistent, year to year, heavy rainfall, and hail. She reports that Karner blues like warm, sunny weather and when it gets warm and then cold in the springtime, their populations suffer.

I requested the butterfly populations counts from Kathy O’Brien and used the Freedom of Information Act to “foil request” the DEC for them. That request was denied both verbally and in writing. This is interesting because there are few localities, nationally, in which insect reports kept top secret. I have spoken to reporters for the mainstream press who have had similar difficulties and delays in getting butterfly counts.

I was initially surprised when the NYS DEC denied publicly funded science data to the public which funded it. When I was also denied the population counts for all the other rare species I had asked about (eventually I did get some deer data), I realized that environmental secrecy is, in fact, the NYS DEC’s policy. I am continuing to file additional FOIL requests at this writing.

I also scoured the Discovery Center for information about the conservation status of the Karner Blue Butterfly but could find no display, exhibit or literature addressing this key point. I was given permission to look in their public library, which contains a file drawer with papers in it. The most recent paper on insects was from before 1990.

Ironically, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission gave the 2005 butterfly report to the developer who is trying to build a hotel next to prime butterfly breeding habitat. Because of this, Save the Pine Bush’s pro bono lawyer Steve Downs received it as part of the Environmental Impact Statement filed by the developer. After reading the data, I knew that Karner Blue numbers were in serious trouble since at least 2004. That year, 12 of 15 monitoring sites were occupied and yet the 2nd brood which is typically 3 times as large as the first, was in fact smaller than the first. There are many possible reasons for this including the isolation of the little subpopulations because of the segmentation of the habitat. This report also cited rainfall as the reason for critically low population levels.

Next, I foiled the Commission for more recent butterfly monitoring reports. I was given the 2008 report and some 525 pages of wildlife studies, representing, according to them, all wildlife population data from 1990-2009.

Though butterfly populations are hard to estimate, they are definitely in trouble here in Albany. In recognition of this, Neil Gifford and his staff released 600 captive raised pupa early in July of 2009 — this year. He reports that the pupa hatched well and he has hopes for the survival of those butterflies.

Meanwhile, Sarah Clarkin, who oversees the Wilton Wildlife Park and Preserve said in early July that “if I had to take a stab in the dark at numbers, I’d estimate our populations at 3,000-5000 Karner Blue Butterflies.” Wilton’s acreage is somewhat less than Albany’s and they are not funded by tipping fees from any landfill. In fact, their funding is far less than the funding provided to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission: the total grants and contracts received from local and state governments to the Albany Pine Bush Commission is 1.4 million dollars (March 2009 Financial Report.)

I visited the Wilton Wildlife Preserve on July 13, 2009 and saw eight Karner Blue Butterflies at Old Gick Farm parcel, in Wilton, NY, off Route 30. This was a treat for me as I have never seen one before, certainly not in Albany. I returned and took some pictures of the butterflies who were curious and unafraid, and kept landing on my fingers and camera!

Why are Albany numbers down? I don’t think we know but I do know that we need to find out.

Scientists like to start with the most reasonable possibilities. In this case, the unusual assaults on the environment in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve would be an obvious place to start. The landfill which was unwisely placed in the Pine Bush, comprises a huge 470 foot tall trash-mountain towering over the Preserve, releases methane and emissions that includes dioxins and many other compounds. It sits over a principal aquifer. Have we sufficiently studied the effect of the pollution from the Rapp Road Landfill on their Karner Blue numbers? Both air and water pollution may be significant factors.

If we haven’t, let’s look again at the $180,000 the Preserve science team made from garbage fees last year, and also the local government grants which might not be friendly to any criticism of the landfill.

Has the Commission followed the lead of states like Wisconsin who have modified their management so as to delay mowing and stop using herbicides during the Spring and Summer flights?

Here is what they did in Wisconsin:

“The Wisconsin Gas Company now mows grass along its power lines later in the summer so that Karner blue caterpillars have time to metamorphose. Other agencies delay herbicide and pesticides spraying on their lands until the fall, after lupine and other plants have died. “The Road to Recovery.” (Center for Biological Diversity

Has the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission allowed or sponsored studies to assess the impact of using herbicidal sprays on the nectar plants visited by the endangered butterfly or the lupine upon which the butterfly larvae depend?

It turns out that Minnesota researchers discovered a very small impact from certain herbicides on Karner Blue eggs, but the study was of different herbicides than the ones we use. We need similar studies to establish any herbicide/Karner blue decline connection here in Albany, NY. Currently, we just don’t know if there is a connection. ( )

Currently, Neil Gifford reports that the Commission uses 3 different herbicides including Roundup and Rodeo; they are used to paint stumps of unwanted trees, to spray stumps of unwanted trees and to spray more generally to kill invasive plants. Yet, in turns out that lupine are particularly sensitive to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and Rodeo; glyphosate is routinely used to eliminate them places where wildlife managers choose to do so. (The article “How to grow, propagate and kill some of the native plants in the Kluane region, southwestern Yukon” was printed in Davidsonia: A Journal Of Botanical Science(19:2:53) by authors Michael A. Treberg & Roy Turkington; the authors reported that lupine species were by far the most sensitive plant to administrations of glyphosate.)

Other studies show amphibians are sensitive to herbicides as well. This interests us in part because of the endangered status of some amphibians in the Pine Bush. The Spadefoot toad is a NYS threatened species, yet researchers in New Mexcio report that juvenile Great Plains Spadefoot toad, will have populations reductions as juveniles when exposed to glyphosate with a standard surfactant.(in Dienhart, S., Smith, L., McMurry, S., Anderson, T., Smith P., and Haukos, D., Toxicity of a glufosinate- and several glyphosate-based herbicides to juvenile amphibians from the Southern High Plains, Science of the Total Environment, January 15, 2009, Copyright © 2008 Elsevier B.V. )

In addition, the recently approved Landfill Expansion Habitat “restoration” plan, will permit many more pesticides to be used in the Albany Pine Bush ecosystem soon. The Habitat Restoration Plan’s “Integrated Pesticide Management” plan allows spraying of pretty much any legal herbicide on a schedule that extends from early Spring to Late Fall.

This species which numbered, in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in the Glacial Lake Albany before the 1970s, is now on the brink of extirpation.

We don’t know why. Though the people in charge of protecting the Karner Blue here in Albany cite that weather events, our conversations with the director of the Wilton Wildlife Preserve indicate that the rainfall in Saratoga has had a much less drastic effect on the Karner Blue Butterflies of Wilton, NY than Albany County rainfall has had in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

I believe it is poor science to ignore the myriad environmental assaults against the Karner Blues in Albany. I think if we acknowledge these environmental pressures, we can begin to remediate them. But it all starts when we come out of denial.

There are serious flaws in the current DEC/Commission science of the declines, and the secrecy of the science. We, the public, need to question the validity of current attempts to find the causes of these drastic declines and we need to demand change.

Oh, by the way, in Wisconsin, Karner Blue populations have increased over 800% since the listing of the insect as a federally endangered species. The Albany, NY Karner Blue population has dropped over 90% since the early 1970s.

Just before this went to press, I ran into an employee of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, an SCA intern named Jake. I asked him where he was going and he said he was doing butterfly monitoring and “no, you can’t come; it’s not for the public.” I said, “how is it going – how many have you seen?” He said he’d seen no butterflies in the 3 monitoring sites he was monitoring 3 times a week since May (2009).

We are right to be concerned. It is the eleventh hour for the Karner Blue. The people of Albany, who want to see this beautiful, endangered creature remain amongst us, must act powerfully for clean, healthy butterfly habitat before it is too late.




Published in the August/September 2009 Newsletter