With more Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterflies being raised at the ABQ BioPark than found in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is placing the butterfly on the Endangered Species List as regulated by the federal Endangered Species Act.
The official listing goes into effect on March 2.
With the designation, there is the potential that more money will be available for conservation, habitat rehabilitation and more scrutiny over applications for mining, grazing and other permits, Elizabeth Bainbridge, a fish and wildlife biologist with the agency said Monday.
There is also generally greater public awareness for a species when it is placed on the Endangered Species List, she said.
The butterfly subspecies is found in only a few meadows, between 7,800 and 9,000 feet in elevation, in the Sacramento Mountains around the village of Cloudcroft in southeastern New Mexico, she said.
Only eight of these butterflies were found in the Sacramento Mountains last year, “and we saw no caterpillars, although they’re difficult to find in the wild, so it’s possible there’s more.”
The USFWS has partnered with the BioPark, which has raised 40 of the caterpillars in captivity. “We’re hoping to breed more in captivity this year and then take some back out to the wild as we work on trying to revegetate their habitat,” Bainbridge said.
The Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly is one of a suite of native pollinators that live in the Sacramento mountains and is important to that ecosystem, she said.
These butterflies are about 2-inches wide in their adult stage. As caterpillars, they spend the winter in a type of hibernation inside a silk-like tent before emerging in the spring as a chrysalis, which later turns into a butterfly with the summer rains. The butterflies then mate “and rely on a single species of host plant, the New Mexico beardtongue, on which to lay eggs,” Bainbridge said.
The dwindling numbers of this butterfly subspecies are likely due to several factors that have degraded its habitat. These include a decade-long drought, warmer temperatures from climate change, the effects of human recreation in the meadow habitat, an altered fire regime, the introduction of invasive and non-native plants, and grazing by large animals such as horses, deer and elk.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, the BioPark Zoo, butterfly experts and a handful of nonprofit organizations and volunteers “to restore butterfly habitat on the Lincoln National Forest,” Bainbridge said.