Bringing Back Sustainable Karner Blue Populations

by Grace Nichols


ALBANY: Using the Freedom of Information Act, both Save the Pine Bush and Brian Nearing of the Times Union requested data that has been collected about the number of Karner Blue populations. We were astounded at what we found. The numbers of butterflies counted have plummeted in recent years, dipping below 1000 butterflies. Figures of what population level is sustainable vary; some say 3000 butterflies are sustainable (even though Karner Blues were extirpated from New Hampshire at that level) while others say it takes from 7000 – 12000 butterflies to make a stable community.

We have been well below that for many years.

The official reasoning is that the weather – not that different from weather parameters of the last 10,000 years and not very different from Saratoga weather (blissfully, Wilton Preserve butterfly numbers are up around 3000-5000 butterflies) – has caused declines. However, we know that multiple impacts have been pummeling these butterflies – the landfill and its air emissions, highways, habitat loss, and insecticides (the city was using them at the landfill and we can guess the businesses and householders in this area may very well be using a lot), and their strong dependence on lupine plants all are conditions they live with .

What’s herbicides got to do with it!?

Another hypothesis is the presence of herbicides – both those used for wildlife management by the Preserve staff, those used by the neighbors of the Pine Bush, and by highway maintenance workers — may be affecting our threatened and endangered insects. Herbicides, often Roundup (a trade name for glyphosate,) are ubiquitous.

We are concerned about use of roundup – particularly the spraying—because in many instances wildlife is extremely sensitive to this chemical.

• Not only is glyphosate a systemic poison which poisons leaves, stem and flowers – it is also a very effective agent against lupine. While most plants need 5 administrations to be killed, lupine dies with one application.

• We are only beginning to have study results showing the effect of herbicide-contaminated-plants on Karner Blues. One was conducted by University of Minnesota researchers in Wisconsin habitat. This study showed some changes in larvae but there are not sufficient studies. So far as we know, there have been no such studies in NY looking at the effect of glyphosate on lupine and Karner Blues.

The question raised is: Does the use of the herbicides end up contaminating or reducing nectar plants in this area?

But wildlife has often had a hard time withstanding herbicides:

• We DO know that Glyphosate – particularly its surfactant—has led to Great Plains Spadefoot declines on New Mexico. Similar studies need to be done here and the precautionary principle needs to be followed.

• We DO know that a herbicide-treated plants when included in a New York Museum of Natural History captive butterfly exhibit killed 100% of the butterflies.

• We DO know that sexoxydin, a different herbicide, was responsible for a 33 percent decline in rare butterflies in Europe.

• We know that annually, across the United State, 7 million song birds die from household use of herbicides – mainly Roundup, primarily to kill dandelions.

• We know that lepidopterists are concerned that current dramatic butterfly and moth declines are tied to agricultural use of Roundup which has nearly exterminated nectar plants in many agricultural areas.

• We are also aware that many people, including the Yurok and Kerok Nations (California Tribes who fought pesticides spread by timber companies with the organization the Seventh Generation Fund) have observed increased cancer rates in their people, due to gathering and using herbicide contaminated food and medicine plants.

We need to have real studies on the pollutants and their effects on butterflies and the Karner Blue. We need to follow the precautionary principle when taking actions that impact Pine Bush land.

Some suggestions for immediate action:

We would like:

• A Moratorium on the Landfill Expansion

• The acquisition of lands bordering the preserved Pine Bush to increase habitat and habitat corridors.

• A reduction of speed on 155 during butterfly season (to 25 mph), two weeks out of the year during Karner blue flight season.

• Tax breaks for homes that plant native plants and favored nectar plants for the Karner Blue.

• Massive reintroduction of Karner Blue Butterfly to prevent extirpation.

• Education for neighbors of the Pine Bush to help conserve the butterflies by limiting their pesticide use and planting butterfly nectar plants.

• Increased study on the impact of pollution such as air and water contamination on the 45 rare species of the Pine Bush.

Additionally, we can protect many different species of insects by encouraging Crossgates, Wall Mart, SUNY and other businesses to replace their mercury light bulbs with sodium vapor light bulbs. These protect insects from light pollution, enabling them to be safe at night. Some species just die if not granted protection;

(Some of these ideas were copied from Tim McCabe’s 1993 Entomological Survey, available from the Albany Pine Bush Commission.)

Thanks to the Preserve for providing the FOILed herbicide records, and thank you to Dr. Ward Stone and Lynne Jackson.

Published in the October/November 2009 Newsletter