Mountain butterfly in New Mexico could see federal protections from extinction

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

A rare butterfly in New Mexico and other western states could soon be at risk of extinction, and the federal government planned to begin recovering the species before its threats worsened.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the silverspot butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), opening a 60-day public comment period to conclude July 5.

Threatened status provides federal protections for a species the Service believes could soon warrant an “endangered” listing that implies extinction is imminent.

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The silverspot butterfly was known to dwell in 10 population groups across northern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah, typically at elevations between 5,200 and 8,300 feet.

Silverspots grow up to a 3-inch wingspan and are known for silvery-white spots on the underside of their wins.

They require moist, open meadows to survive with available vegetation to lay eggs on.

The butterfly requires bog violets to lay eggs on our near, which their larvae feed on exclusively between hatching in September to the May.

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The silverspot butterfly is pictured.

Federal regulators identified climate change, livestock grazing and habitat loss as threats to the animal.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not propose any critical habitat restrictions to protect the butterfly but noted its environment could change significantly over the next 30 years.

The proposal came after the Fish and Wildlife Service released a Species Status Assessment (SSA), using research and studies into the animal’s present viability and future impacts.

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It pointed to climate change as minor factor today that would likely grow into a major threat in the coming decades.

“The climate already appears to be changing from human impacts with earlier springs and warmer temperatures,” read the report. “The butterfly has survived through the more severe past droughts and, despite noted changes in climate over the last 36 years, climate has thus far not been a detectable factor in reduction of species viability.

“However, climate appears to be at the verge of becoming a major factor.”

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Another rule was proposed to support conservation efforts for the species to allow for agricultural and other necessary land uses.

“As summarized in the SSA report, climatic conditions are expected to change across the range of the silverspot butterfly over the next 30 years, such that the viability of the subspecies may decrease in the future,” read a report from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The silverspot butterfly is pictured.

The Fish and Wildlife Service initially proposed the butterfly, then known as the Great Basin silverspot butterfly, for a listing in 1978 and withdrew the proposal about a year later.

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The species found again a listing might be warranted in 1984, adding to a list of candidate species, but removed it again from consideration in 1996.

In making its most recent proposal, the Service evaluated multiple factors for species’ potential extinction, along with human industrial impacts, and found federal regulations were presently inadequate for its survival.

“These factors represent broad categories of natural or human-caused actions or conditions that could have an effect on a species' continued existence,” read the proposal.

“In evaluating these actions and conditions, we look for those that may have a negative effect on individuals of the species, as well as other actions or conditions that may ameliorate any negative effects or may have positive effects.”

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Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians petitioned the Service in 2013 to list the silverspot butterfly for protections, and in 2016, the Service found WildEarth Guardians’ petition presented “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted,” and began reviewing the species for listing.

Joe Bushyhead, attorney with WildEarth Guardians said listing the animal for protections was a crucial step in preventing its extinction and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

“Listing offers silverspots a much-needed lifeline,” Bushyhead said. “We’re hopeful the ESA can provide a path to both recover the butterfly and safeguard its vanishing habitat.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.