This butterfly was once thought extinct. Now it’s off the endangered species list

Jan 21, 2023, 12:00 PM
Image of the Fender's Blue Butterfly (Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)...
Image of the Fender's Blue Butterfly (Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)
(Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

(CNN) — The Fender’s blue butterfly has fluttered away from the brink of extinction.

The species, once so rare it was thought to be extinct, is no longer considered endangered, according to a January 11 news release from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The organization reclassified the species from “endangered” to “threatened” and also finalized a rule to make it easier for landowners to manage the species.

“This is a tremendous success story — to go from nearly extinct to on the road to recovery,” Craig Rowland, acting state supervisor for the service’s Oregon office, said in the release. “We’ve only reached this point of being able to downlist because of successful partnerships with landowners, conservation agencies, businesses, other agencies, and the work of our national wildlife refuges to conserve Fender’s butterfly.

“This is yet another species that is making incredible strides in Oregon,” he added.

The reclassification will take effect February 13, according to the release.

The Fender’s blue butterfly is found only in Oregon’s Willamette Valley — a 150-mile long region in the state that stretches from Portland to Eugene — says the service. The species was thought to be extinct in 1937 but was later rediscovered in 1989. Thanks to local conservation efforts, the butterfly’s population expanded from approximately 3,391 insects in 2000 to 13,700 in 2018, according to a species assessment from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

For Sujud Ottman, a biology and urban agriculture teacher at Evanston Township High School in Illinois and an amateur butterfly conservationist, the species’ recovery is a “sign of hope” for other endangered species.

Ottman told CNN the Fender’s blue butterfly is unique because it prefers to lay its eggs on one host plant, Kincaid’s lupine. This makes the survival of the butterfly and the plant deeply intertwined. Kincaid’s lupine is also categorized as “threatened” by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The insects are also interesting because of their life cycle, Ottman added. The Fender’s caterpillars enter a kind of delayed development called diapause during the winter before emerging as fully formed butterflies. The adults live for only around 10 days, during which they must find a mate and reproduce.

Ottman said habitat loss and the human prevention of natural wildfires are the main threats to the Fender’s blue butterfly. Wildfires are necessary to prevent the prairie habitat the butterflies depend on from turning into forests.

Conservation efforts included planting thousands of Kincaid’s lupine for the butterflies to lay their eggs on as well as prescribed fires to maintain the crucial prairie environment.

The species’ reclassification is “wonderful news,” Ottman added. “It’s super inspirational, to know that a butterfly that was once thought of as extinct is now de-listed off of the endangered species list.

“It’s truly remarkable, and it gives me a lot of hope.”

As pollinators, butterflies are a crucial component of our ecosystems, she explained. That’s part of why protecting endangered butterflies is so important. “I feel like this story is, well, really empowering and I hope it lights a fire within to continue conservation efforts that they’re doing,” she said.

For Ottman, the Fender’s blue butterfly’s recovery may signal hope for other endangered butterfly species, like the iconic monarch butterfly. Monarchs were classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in July 2022.

“My dream is for the monarch to basically follow the footsteps of the Fender’s blue butterfly, and, you know, thrive, as well,” she said. “I believe that we can do it, and that we can reverse the damage that we’ve done.”

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This butterfly was once thought extinct. Now it’s off the endangered species list