The caterpillar of the Karner blue butterfly is picky. Feeding solely on leaves of the wild lupine plant, the federally endangered butterfly can live only where lupine thrives.
In Ohio - where lupine is potentially threatened - the Conservancy’s Kitty Todd Preserve within the Oak Openings Region is the only location in the state where these butterflies continue to exist.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“For about a decade, the Karner blue butterfly didn’t exist in Ohio,” said Gary Haase, the preserve manager at Kitty Todd. “It was on the decline for years and was last documented in a survey taken by the Toledo Zoo in 1988.”
But in 1993 plans to develop a reintroduction program began to take shape and by 1995 habitat restoration work was under way.
Since then, 250 acres of the rare oak savanna habitat that lupine depends upon have been restored - through prescribed burning, invasive species control and tree-thinning.
Confident in the amount of lupine that was now flourishing at the preserve, the Toledo Zoo reintroduced the first set of hand-raised Karner blue butterflies in 1998.
“To date, 2,355 butterflies have been reintroduced,” said Haase. “And surveys have shown that the population is doing pretty well.”
And it’s not just the Karner that has reaped the benefits of this newly-improved habitat. The state endangered frosted elfin and persius duskywing butterflies – both lupine feeders - are also doing better, along with a variety of bird species.
“By thinning out the trees, we’re seeing an increase in red-headed woodpeckers and lark sparrows,” notes Haase. “And the badgers love it, too.”
And while !@#restoration efforts at Kitty Todd Preserve have helped to increase the Karner’s chances for survival, researchers are learning that outside factors can hinder the program’s success.
In 2006 - just when surveys and research projects were beginning to indicate that the population was reaching a self-sustaining level - Mother Nature threw a curve.
Early and very warm spring temperatures – which were followed quickly by a cold spell – contributed to diminished populations of the butterfly.
“It just goes to show how sensitive and vulnerable these tiny creatures can be,” said Haase. “Now we have a better idea of what their limitations are, and how persistent we need to be in our efforts.”
The good news is that it looks like Kitty Todd Preserve soon may not be the only place where people might encounter a Karner.
“Discussions are underway to reintroduce the butterfly at the Toledo Metropark's Oak Openings Metropark and the Division of Wildlife’s Meilke Road Savanna,” said Haase. "They've been working on restoring savanna habitat there as well."
While the future looks bright blue for these small winged creatures, Haase isn’t satisfied just yet.
“I’ll be happy when the butterflies are surviving on their own, year to year, and releases are no longer needed,” he said.