Albany Pine Bush Marks Karner Blue Recovery

By Dave Lucas, WAMC - Northeast Public Radio

One of New York's ecological treasures is one step closer to recovery.

Almost everyone has heard of Albany's Pine Bush Preserve and its celebrated occupant, the Karner blue butterfly. But those who frequent the 3,200-acre nature area already know that the Pine Bush is larger than one might think, while the Karner blue is much smaller than the average butterfly.

Karner blue butterfly

Albany Pine Bush is a critically important habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly./J&K Hollingsworth USFWS

Twenty-five years after being federally listed as endangered, the Karner blue butterfly has exceeded recovery goals at Albany Pine Bush. In fact, officials say the insect is thriving.

Neil Gifford, conservation director at the Albany Pine Bush, drove me to a location on the preserve where we'd be most likely to spot a butterfly. The Karner Blue isn't the only species there: "There are several dozen other butterflies and moths and several reptiles and amphibians."

Not to mention 43 varieties of birds. And there's the lupine, the only plant the young Karner caterpillars will eat.

Ten acres of carefully tended wild blue lupine in the preserve have been critical to the butterfly's survival. Controlled burns are conducted every five to ten years to ensure rich fertile soil for the plants. According to Gifford, 2016 was the fourth consecutive year the preserve’s Karner population exceeded the 3,000 butterfly minimum established in the 2003 federal Karner Blue Butterfly Recovery Plan. "The fact that one species became endangered is really a symptom of a much bigger problem, and that's ecosystem health. And in the case of pine barrens and oak savannah where Karners live, it's about fire exclusion. This is a fire-dependent eco-system."

A team of humans monitor and interact with the system, among them conservation science technician Sofia Furlong. "On a Karner survey day, we have 24 sites total and we divide that between five of us. We go out to each site, we have flags that are set out in lines, we walk up and down them, through the site. We have 4-meter poles that we carry perpendicular to our body, and then depending on where we see the Karner, where the pole is, we give it like a letter indicator of how far it is. A is the closest to your body, [then] B, C, D."

Furlong steps into the field dressed head to toe in protective clothing. How long does it take to count butterflies? "Between four and five hours to do six sites. 'Cause it takes a lot to walk out there too."

Prescribed burn at Albany Pine Bush Preserve

Prescribed fire is a key management practice used to restore habitat for Karner blue butterflies and other wildlife that live in pine barrens.

How many can she count? "Right now, in peak time, the other day, Audrey counted 120 for all of her sites combined, but I only counted like 20, in my sites, because they vary between sites depending on lupine and everything."

Recovery goals must be met in multiple areas in New York and in other states for the butterfly to be removed from the federal endangered list. Conservation efforts continue in nearby Saratoga and Warren counties.

The Karner blue comeback story is the result of a collaboration between the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect what is regarded as the best remaining global example of an inland pitch pine-scrub oak barrens.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said, “New York is committed to protecting the state’s natural resources and environmental treasures for future generations, including endangered species like the Karner blue butterfly. Collaborative efforts that include science-based habitat management like New York’s Young Forest Initiative and partnerships with the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are critical to our work restoring endangered species.”

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