A Climate Rescue Mission For Puget Sound’s Rare Butterfly
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A Climate Rescue Mission For Puget Sound’s Rare Butterfly

August 9, 2019

– [Narrator] On the southern
tip of San Juan Island you might witness a deer
grazing on the tall grass. – [Amy] It is quite stunning, for sure. – [Narrator] A bald eagle. – [Amy] Whoa. – [Narrator] Stealing lunch from a seal. Or a fox on the hunt. But unless you’re with Amy Lambert, you’ll probably overlook
the little, white butterfly that has everyone talking. – There’s one, you see it? This one really likes the wind. Oh, there’s two. Woo boy. When the butterfly is resting, you know you’re seeing your Island Marble. – [Narrator] The Island
Marble is considered one of the rarest
butterflies in North America. It only exists here in the upper reaches of Washington State’s Puget Sound inside a small section of
a very small national park. The Island Marble was
thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered
here in the late ’90s. – This is a butterfly
that came up from nowhere. It’s curious, it’s mysterious. – [Narrator] So Lambert became
one of the first scientists to study it documenting
its flight patterns, where it lays eggs, what kind
of food it needs to survive. – [Amy] It was a pretty special time. The population and the number of adults on the landscape, it was very abundant and they were flying and
dispersing in many areas. – [Narrator] Including
beaches like this one where she discovered the healthiest colony of Island Marble butterflies. – There was a lot of peppergrass and there were many eggs. – [Narrator] Then, in
2008, Lambert returned for her annual survey and just
as she was getting to know the island’s rhythms,
not a single butterfly returned to greet her. – [Amy] Pretty unusual. – [Narrator] She looked
for butterfly eggs, too, usually found in the buds
of this native plant. – Aha, no, what’s that? – [Narrator] But her search came up empty. – I don’t see anything. I’m disappointed. The numbers completely blanked out. – [Narrator] She noticed
that sand and gravel were blanketing the plants. It was a tale tell sign that surging tides had rushed over the lagoon
the previous winter. The kind of coastal flood that’s expected to become more common
over the next century. With so few strongholds left, any loss of habitat brings
them one step closer to extinction. – You realize your numbers are so low that in your lifetime,
maybe even in next year, you may not see those butterflies again. – [Elexis] The Island Marble
butterfly is on life support. – [Woman] Come on. – [Narrator] Park researchers
are helping the butterflies by raising them during their
most vulnerable life stages. – The park has been
engaged in trying to be really supportive and help
bring back the stability of the Island Marble butterfly population. It’s a matter of the
staff and the researchers collecting the eggs,
bringing them back into the rearing lab and insuring that as the caterpillars progress
in their lifecycle they have the nutrients that they need. – I’m just kind of tracking
like, so, let me see this, like what stage they’re
in and what location on the plant they are, the status and anything notable about
if they’ve fallen off or having any trouble. – [Elexis] There’s a lot
of tending to their needs. – [Narrator] Eventually, the caterpillars wrap themselves in a cocoon, spend 11 months in a
temperature controlled closet and reemerge as butterflies
the following spring. – [Elexis] We are helping
release them into the habitat that we’re really hopeful
is the kind of habitat that they need. – There’s a butterfly right there. Did you see it? Oh, there it is, it’s coming back around. – [Narrator] Lambert is hoping
to entice the butterflies to move to higher ground. – There’s one here, too. – Wait, what? – Yeah, look. – [Narrator] By planting
flowering grasses like these in the park’s upland
prairies and watching over the butterfly eggs. – I track each one of those eggs as it moves through its caterpillar stages to see what the survival rate is and if, in fact, it’s working or not. It’s one thing to put all these adults out on the landscape,
but you have to measure are they surviving. It’s not moving much, is it? Chances of survival are pretty low. When they’re this small, they usually can only feed
on the flowers or the buds. So it was stranded and it likely starved. – [Narrator] The timing is tricky. The plants must begin to bloom just as the butterflies are released. – In conservation, when you’re the one that’s, you know, changing
the temperature gauge in a captive rearing
room, or you’re the one that’s putting seeds of these
plants on the landscape, you realize how difficult it is. – [Narrator] And questions
remain about whether this upland habitat is enough. The Island Marble seems
to like this prairie, but so do other creatures. Park superintendent, Elexis
Fredy, worries the prairie is getting crowded. – [Elexis] So it’s this never
ending cycle with the rabbits and they continue to expand. There’s no way to keep
the deer out of the park. You can’t fence off the whole prairie for a single species. You know, everybody needs
a piece of this place so you’re constantly having to decide which way to shift the balance of favor. – [Narrator] Conservationists
will continue to wrestle with that question. Deciding whether a butterfly
that has existed here for centuries has a place in its future. – [Announcer] This KCTS9
Digital Studios original made possible with your support. Thank you.

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  1. Heard the story on Public Radio this morning, and found this searching for a vid of the MIB! A beautiful creature, and amazing habitat.

  2. for viewers, a correction: at 3:58 the yellow flowers are not "grasses," they are mustard, which is on the Invasive NonNative plant list, but is an important food plant and nectar plant for insects https://www.invasiveplantatlas.org/subject.html?sub=6416

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