In shadow of war ma­chines

Rare but­ter­fly thrives on, and be­cause of, U.S. mil­i­tary bases

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Mark Pratt U.S. Army via AP

BOS­TON» A tiny, rare but­ter­fly is flour­ish­ing. Oddly, ex­perts say, the U.S. mil­i­tary gets the credit.

The frosted elfin, which flut­ters along on a 1-inch wing­span, has found a home at sev­eral de­fense in­stal­la­tions be­cause of the way the mil­i­tary man­ages open spa­ces, said Robyn Niver, an en­dan­gered species bi­ol­o­gist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice.

“Mil­i­tary train­ing re­quires vast open ar­eas, so these bases are some of our last great wild places,” Niver said.

The lit­tle brown but­ter­fly has been con­firmed at Westover Air Re­serve Base and Camp Ed­wards in Mas­sachusetts; Fort McCoy in Wis­con­sin; Fort Bragg in North Carolina; and the New Hamp­shire State Mil­i­tary Reser­va­tion, she said.

The com­mon thread among the bases is the way they man­age veg­e­ta­tion through con­trolled burns, which cre­ate the per­fect con­di­tions for wild blue lupine and in­digo to grow. They are the frosted elfin cater­pil­lar’s two host plants.

The dainty but­ter­flies first were spot­ted at Westover in Chicopee, Mass., about 20 years ago, ac­cord­ing to Jack Mo­ri­arty, the base’s chief of en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing.

Proper veg­e­ta­tion con­trol is crit­i­cal for the safety of the mas­sive C5 mil­i­tary trans­port air­craft that call the base home. If the veg­e­ta­tion is cut too short, it at­tracts geese and gulls, in­creas­ing the risk of air­craft strikes.

If it is al­lowed to grow too tall, tur­keys, deer and coy­otes move in. Lupine and in­digo are just the right height.

Al­though there have been anec­do­tal re­ports of its pres­ence in the past, the frosted elfin was con­firmed at Camp Ed­wards on Cape Cod this spring, said Jake McCum­ber, the Mas­sachusetts Army Na­tional Guard’s nat­u­ral re­sources man­ager.

“It was pretty ex­cit­ing. I was thrilled,” he said. “Our grass­lands are in the head­quar­ters area, so it’s prob­a­bly the busiest part of the base.”

The area is used for the setup of field ar­tillery equip­ment and heli­copter ex­er­cises.

Al­though they’ve been on the base about two decades, the frosted elfin pop­u­la­tion at 60,000-acre Fort McCoy ap­pears to have ex­ploded, said Tim Wilder, the base’s en­dan­gered species bi­ol­o­gist. An an­nual count found about 130 of the in­sects on the base this spring, the most since the sur­vey be­gan in 2009.

Frosted elfins are not on the fed­eral list of en­dan­gered species, but they are headed there, Niver said.

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