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Eastern New York: Outlook No Longer Blue for Karner Blue Butterflies

On the decline for decades, the outlook for the flighty blue butterfly was not very positive. But thanks to efforts to restore its habitat, the future for the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly looks brighter.

“When we began the restoration work in the spring of 2003,” explains conservation ecologist Chris Zimmerman, “less than five acres of Karner habitat was protected in the Saratoga Sandplains Recovery Unit and the small, struggling Karner population numbered less than 1,000. To see that number increase to over 20,000 this past spring is quite extraordinary and underscores the importance and impact of habitat restoration for the Karner blue butterfly and other species.”

More than 125 acres of habitat have been restored through tree removal and the planting of grasses and wildflowers, including wild blue lupine and a number of nectar species — butterfly milkweed, dotted horsemint, and New Jersey tea. Wild blue lupine, the sole food source for the Karner blue larvae, is the most important wildflower planted. Without blue lupine, there is no Karner blue butterfly.

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The Saratoga Sandplains Recovery Unit, a part of the Glacial Lake Albany Federal Recovery Unit,supports the largest Karner blue butterfly population in the eastern United States. Karner blue butterflies have very particular habitat needs, which is why they are found in pitch pine/scrub oak communities that are maintained by fire at an early stage of plant succession. Fire suppression combined with habitat fragmentation contributed to the decline of the Karners and resulted in its 1992 placement on the federally endangered species list.

While the recovery effort has allowed the Karner blue butterfly to reclaim lost territory, its future is not yet secure. “It is estimated that approximately 300 acres of habitat are required to maintain the viability of the species over the long-term,” notes Zimmerman. “Extreme weather events during the flight periods, which may increase in frequency in the face of climate change, greatly influence population fluctuation.”

While the outlook for the small, blue butterfly is currently bright in the Saratoga Sandplains, adding to the existing preserve network and working to enhance and restore critical natural habitat is crucial for the long-term conservation of the Karner blue butterfly.

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