The endangered Karner Blue butterfly.
GEORGE SYDLOWSKI Enlarge
PORTER, Ind. — The real story inside the U.S. government’s spectacular Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore east of Chicago isn’t what you see along its 45 miles of trails meandering through or across rugged sand dunes, biologically complex wetlands, tall prairie grasses, slow-moving rivers, and quiet forests.
It’s what you don’t see.
The park is struggling to hang onto one of the Great Lakes region’s most fragile and iconic symbols of nature, the Karner blue butterfly.
The butterfly appears doomed there and in other parts of its southern range — including most of the globally rare Oak Openings region. Oak Openings is a 22-mile diagonal band of sandy soil and oak savannas that is 3 to 5 miles wide and historically spanned across western Lucas County and into parts of Fulton, Henry, and Monroe counties.
Endangered species rarely disappear from national parks. But scientists fear that could be the Karner blue’s fate at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
At an inch long, the Karner blue is a butterfly small enough to hide behind a quarter. It’s what scientists call an indicator species because of its fragility, a warning sign for other creatures when something goes afoul with it.
“Because of its biology, the Karner blue butterfly is going to be a test case for climate sensitivity,” said Chris Hoving, Michigan Department of Natural Resources climate adaptation specialist. “I think we’re going to be dealing with a lot of these questions with other species.”
Karner blues are “probably one of — if not the most — climate-sensitive species in the Midwest,” he said.
The butterfly’s original Maine-to-Minnesota range has shrunk over the years to one that is now mostly hemmed in between New York and Wisconsin. More than 90 percent of the losses have occurred in the past 15 years, with the decline accelerating most rapidly along the southern edge of the butterfly’s range.
The butterfly’s fate is inextricably tied to that of its only food source, a beautiful purplish plant called wild lupine. It grows best in sandy soil of oak savanna habitat.
In 2011 and 2012, winters were so mild that springtime Karner blue eggs hatched six weeks early — well before lupine bloomed.
The extreme drought of 2012 wiped out that year’s summertime hatch. Karner blues have two hatches a year, the latter being the most important for sustaining its population.
The once-highly prolific Allegan State Game Area in southwest Michigan, which for many years had supplied the Toledo Zoo with adults for its captive breeding program, lost about 90 percent of its Karner blues that year alone. The Allegan State Game Area went from tens of thousands to a few hundred. The devastation ceased the zoo’s production of young Karner blues for the Oak Openings, because the state game area in Michigan no longer had any adults to spare.
This will likely be the third consecutive year the Allegan State Game Area won’t have butterflies for the zoo.
“We kind of considered them nearly bullet-proof here, to be honest,” said Maria Albright, Allegan State Game Area wildlife technician. “We’ve never seen anything as dramatic as what we’ve had now.”
It’s not just early hatches. A lack of snow cover dehydrates butterfly eggs and makes them more likely to die from cold.
Butterflies — like other creatures in nature — have the potential to rebound.
But scientists haven’t seen any marked improvements following the last two winters, when the Great Lakes region was socked by some of the heaviest snow and cold in years. There was a slight uptick in some areas, but not much.
How grim is the outlook for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?
Only three male Karner blues and no females were found in 2014 among the site’s 15,000 acres.
The team of researchers there walked a collective 112 miles but couldn’t find more.
The last vestige from that site may be butterflies the University of Notre Dame took for research a few years ago.
They are being held in a controlled environmental chamber at the university.
“We never intended them to be the remaining individuals,” said Jessica Hellmann, Notre Dame biological sciences associate chairman. “That’s the elephant in the room.”
Ralph Grundel, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist, said there are indications of stress throughout the park, from its scattered tree cover to microbiological changes in its sandy soil.
Some of the park’s natural habitat has been upended by invasive trees and plants, said Randy Grass, a park biological technician.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is bisected by a highway. Scientists have found Karner blues with one set of genes on one side and another set of genes on the other.
That strengthens evidence that Karner blues — unlike monarchs — don’t fly far from where they were hatched.
“We often think things will move under climate change,” Ms. Hellmann said. “[But] Karner blues don’t even cross the road.”
Bob Daum, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore resource management chief, says the park will fight to restore its Karner blue population.
Bob Daum, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore resource management chief, said the park will fight to restore its Karner blue population.
Toledo-area officials might be called upon to help, but it’s unclear now if Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore could get adults for captive breeding.
“It’s going to take cooperation, it’s going to take partners, it’s going to take brainpower,” Mr. Daum said. “This is happening right now.”
The Karner blue put western Lucas County on the map with the successful efforts to reintroduce it there in 1998, a decade after the butterfly vanished from Ohio.
The project was a biological home run, a story that spread like wildfire in scientific journals and magazines nationally.
It was the first time an endangered butterfly made a comeback in an area from which it had been wiped out. The story sparked momentum to save the globally rare Oak Openings region itself.
Groups such as Ohio State University Extension gave area landowners tips on how to grow wild lupine. The state of Ohio put up highway markers, letting drivers know when they were entering the Oak Openings region.
“When I started the project in 1998, it was the first time anything like this had ever been done,” said Candee Ellsworth, Ohio Karner Blue Recovery Team coordinator.
Ms. Ellsworth, now executive director of the nonprofit Nature’s Nursery, said she led the captive breeding program at the Toledo Zoo most of the years it existed.
She admits she was at first skeptical but then became encouraged by its success and how it inspired organizations such as Metroparks of the Toledo Area to buy up land, as part of the Green Ribbon Initiative, in hopes of staving off development.
“I couldn’t believe 10 years later how many properties were bought,” Ms. Ellsworth said.
Peter Tolson, Toledo Zoo conservation and research director, said two sites at the Nature Conservancy’s Kitty Todd Nature Preserve continue to have small-but-stable populations. But most Karner blues reintroduced at other Oak Openings sites are now gone.
“I’ve put a lot of years and sweat equity into this. I don’t think this looks good,” Mr. Tolson said.
Hope for the future
Most Karner blues now are in Michigan and Wisconsin.
“If they have a future, it’s going to be in the sandy areas of northern Michigan around Traverse City and Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore,” Mr. Tolson said.
Steve Woods, the Nature Conservancy’s Oak Openings program manager, said most of the Karner blues left at Kitty Todd congregate around sites the butterflies found on their own — not where they were released. Nobody knows why.
“There’s a good chance they will be extricated again from Ohio,” Mr. Woods said.
Across the state line, in Michigan’s Monroe County, the Detroit Zoo and the state of Michigan collaborated in 2008 on what continues to be a promising reintroduction at the Petersburg State Game Area, part of the historic Oak Openings region.
There also has been a successful reintroduction in New Hampshire, on airport property owned by the city of Concord, said Mitch Magdich, Toledo Zoo education curator.
But spotty signs of hope are overshadowed by massive losses.
The big picture
Scientists want to know what it all means in the big picture.
No Karner blue surveying was done in the 1930s, when the Great Lakes region incurred one of its biggest droughts on record.
“Logically, everything tells me it had to be worse then,” Ms. Albright said.
Surveying didn’t begin until the late 1970s or early 1980s, she said.
“I think there’s hope that if the weather doesn't get too wild they can come back,” Ms. Albright said. “[But] it’s not completely under human control at this point.”
To Mr. Magdich, Karner blues are “kind of a barometer of the health of an ecosystem.”
“How many other species are disappearing that we don't even know about?” he asked. “We only notice Karner blues because they’re beautiful. It’s kind of a cascading effect. We may not notice it now, but we may in the future.”
Scott Butterworth, Ohio Department of Natural Resources northwest district wildlife manager, agreed the butterfly’s future is bleak, not just because of climate change but also because of how its habitat has been chiseled up.
“When you have such restricted habitat, they’re so limited on where they can go,” Mr. Butterworth said.
Mr. Woods said the “pendulum swung too far in favor of development.”
“As we lose those pieces, the puzzle is falling apart and that’s a big deal,” he said.
Karner blues are “telling us we need to do a better job,” Mr. Woods said.
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