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Feds act to protect critically endangered New Mexico butterfly

During a study of the species in 2022, only eight adult Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterflies were counted in their natural habitat.

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extended Endangered Species Act protections to the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly, a two-inch orange and brown pollinator that lives in only a few meadows at high elevations in southern New Mexico.

During a 2022 study of the species, only eight adult butterflies were counted in their natural habitat according to Elizabeth Bainbridge, a Fish and Wildlife biologist. The year before, 23 were counted in the wild and in 2020, just eight butterflies were counted.

Granting the butterflies endangered species status not only alerts the scientific community and the public that these insects are in danger of going extinct in their natural habitat, it makes it illegal for people to try to take the butterflies from their natural environment without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service, it also means that the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the Lincoln National Forest, and other federal agencies must consult with Fish and Wildlife in order to conserve and protect the butterflies and their natural habitat.

Bainbridge called it “a formal way” of saying that the butterflies are important and they should be conserved. 

As their name would suggest, the butterflies live in a few select meadows in the Sacramento Mountains. The mountains are what are called “sky islands,” isolated mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico that rise out of the desert floor that because of their elevation have a different climate and unique plants and animals. 

The plants the butterflies use to lay their eggs — the beardtongue — are also endemic to the mountain range. 

Both the butterflies and the beardtongue’s habitat are being affected by climate change, human recreation in the area, a history of cattle grazing in the wider ranges where they used to live, invasive nonnative plants and wildfires. 

Bainbridge said scientists and conservationists have been trying to improve the butterflies' chances of survival by raising caterpillars in captivity in Albuquerque's BioPark Zoo with plans to take them to their natural habitats in the Sacramento Mountains to repopulate. Currently there are 140 Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterflies at the BioPark.

Bainbridge also hopes that this new protection of the species under the Endangered Species Act will help.

“There’s lots of little intricacies to the web of life up there that we just haven’t had the chance to study,” Bainbridge said. “If they go extinct that’s something we just won’t have a chance to understand in the future.”

Protecting the small butterflies also calls attention to the need to protect other little known endangered species, and to study how they interact and play a part in their natural habitats, Bainbridge added.  

“It's kind of like that song, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone,” Bainbridge said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is still determining a critical habitat area for the butterflies, which should happen sometime this year.

The listing of the butterflies on the endangered species list will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday and takes effect March 2.

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