By Julian Wilson
In the words of the beloved Seuss character the Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better, it’s not.” This philosophy applies to all conservation efforts, not just Seuss’s fictional Truffula trees. The efforts of an individual person or a small group of caring people can make drastic change for the fate of an endangered or threatened species. Many citizens just like you have adopted this approach to the conservation of the wonderful natural world in which we live. In the case of butterfly conservation, small-scale community and individual efforts for preservation and repopulation have been incredibly effective and successful.
A Stanford biologist named Tim Wong began a backyard project to repopulate the California Pipevine Swallowtail in an urban environment. Upon learning that the species now has a drastically reduced range caused by the urban expansion of San Francisco, Wong decided to find all the information he could gather on the species in order to see what he personally could do to effect change. Through his research, Wong discovered that the life cycle of this butterfly relies heavily on the California pipevine plant, which he then planted in an enclosure in his backyard which he tailored specifically to the needs of the butterfly.
Wong’s efforts to create a butterfly paradise in his backyard have greatly increased the numbers of this rare butterfly species, and each year more and more butterflies are present, which Wong describes as “a good sign that our efforts are working!” Wong’s success in the case of the California Pipevine Swallowtail proves what an incredible impact just one person can have on the conservation of a rare or endangered species.
Similarly, a women’s prison outside Seattle has had much success in their efforts to conserve the Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly. The inmates have become experts in butterfly breeding, and have aided in the growth and release of thousands of the species. This previously endangered butterfly now has a population considered to be self-sustaining.
On a slightly larger scale, the endangerment of ecosystems also threaten butterfly species. Houston, situated right along a major Monarch butterfly migration path, faces the problem of a drastic lack of natural areas that still resemble its historical coastal prairie ecosystem. In a publication on Monarch Conservation in America’s Cities, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, Patrick Fitzgerald details how Houston has responded to this problem by establishing “No Mow” zones, where natural vegetation such as milkweed is allowed to grow and proliferate.
So what can you do? If you’re not quite ready to commit to creating an entire butterfly paradise greenhouse in your backyard like Tim Wong, there is still plenty you can do to help butterflies! Learning about local species and what plants they rely on is very helpful, and growing a variety of butterfly-friendly flora is one of the best ways you can support your local butterflies. As Shackleton and Ratnieks, working with the National Environmental Research Foundation and University of Sussex, pointed out in the Journal of Insect Conservation, it’s important to understand which butterflies are attracted to which plants, and ideally to have an assortment of good nectar plants where butterflies can come visit you in your home garden. And if you want a particularly low-effort way to help, you can always create a “No Mow” area in your own yard.
Although some might not agree that the aesthetic beauty of butterflies alone is enough to warrant conservation efforts, there are many other reasons why they are important, particularly their role as pollinators. Mass use of pesticides, habitat destruction, as well as other factors make the conservation of pollinators an urgent issue. Thankfully, there has been increasing understanding about the critical ecological function that pollinators such as butterflies serve, particularly in allowing us to eat many of our favorite foods.
To be sure, saving endangered butterfly species is not an easy job, and is certainly a more complicated process than can be fully explained or explored in a brief article such as this. Nevertheless, there is still plenty that can be done to help endangered and threatened butterfly species at both individual and local scales. It is ultimately the people like you, who care a whole awful lot, that can make some of the biggest differences in conservation efforts.
“Do Call It a Comeback — How the Checkerspot Butterfly Found Salvation in a Women’s Prison.” PBS. PBS, 17 May 2016. Web. Sept. 2016. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/do-call-it-a-comeback-how-the-checkerspot-butterfly-found-salvation-in-a-womens-prison/
Fitzgerald, Patrick. Monarch Conservation in America’s Cities (n.d.): n. pag. National Wildlife Federation. Web. Sept. 2016. http://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Garden-for-Wildlife/Monarch-Conservation-in-Americas-Cities_Guide-121715.pdf
Grasyte, Ruta. “One Man Single-Handedly Repopulates Rare Butterfly Species In His Own Backyard.” Bored Panda. N.p., Aug. 2016. Web. Sept. 2016. http://www.boredpanda.com/rare-blue-swallowtail-pipevine-butterfly-repopulation-tim-wong/
Shackleton, K. & Ratnieks, F.L.W. J Insect Conserv (2016) 20: 141. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10841-015-9827-9
Seuss, Dr. The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.