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At 4,000-Plus Feet, An Effort To Save The Butterflies Of The Presidential Range

Sean Hurley
Heidi Holman (left) and Steve Fuller heading off to free the butterflies.

The White Mountain Fritillary butterfly can only be found in one place on earth - above 4000 feet in the Presidential Range. A conservation effort is underway to make sure the insect can survive climate change… but scientists have only just begun to learn about the species and how it may be at risk.

As part of NHPR’s reporting project, By Degrees, NHPR’s Sean Hurley joined researchers atop Mount Washington to see four captive butterflies released back into the wild.

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As the Cog Railway whistles to a stop with its first load of morning passengers at the top of Mount Washington, I meet up with US Fish & Game’s Steve Fuller who’s overseeing a number of endangered species projects around New England including the salt marsh sparrow, the wood turtle, the fireflies of Bethany Beach.  

Here in the Presidentials it’s the White Mountain Fritillary, which could soon be added to the federally endangered list if conservation efforts aren’t successful.

“We're really just beginning,” Fuller says, “there's so much that's not known about the species. And that's why the kind of work that that Heidi and New Hampshire Fish and Game are doing is critical.”

Heidi is Heidi Holman, a lepidopterist who led a successful 16 year long project to conserve our state butterfly – the Karner Blue. 

Credit Sean Hurley
Holman in the White Mountain Fritillary Lab on top of Mount Washington

Four years ago, Holman began a similar effort with the White Mountain Fritillary. “Welcome to the White Mountain Fritillary Lab at the top of Mount Washington!” Holman says in greeting. “Today we have four females that we've been holding to collect eggs. And we're going to release them back out into the wild.”

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“So the White Mountain fritillary is about the size of a half dollar,” Holman says as reaches into a mesh holding tent and a small female crawls into her hand. “It’s orange and black, similar to a monarch, but with very different patterns. They tend to crawl around in the vegetation instead of risk flying on high wind days.”

Credit Sean Hurley
The White Mountain Fritillary

Science is slow, Holman says - and conservation science is especially slow. It took a whole year to determine which butterflies were female, and would lay eggs. After learning that females have an incredibly fine white check pattern at the edge of their wings, Holman and her colleagues began catching them and gathering their grain-of-sand sized eggs.

The four females she caught last week and will release today have laid dozens of eggs.  

“The big thing is the eggs are going to hatch into caterpillars sometime in the next 10 to 13 days,” Holman says, “and then we'll overwinter those caterpillars to then perform some feeding studies to figure out what they eat. Because we actually don't know what they eat.”

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Finding out what that host plant is – what the caterpillar feeds on - will be critical in determining both the threat to the fritillary and a possible way forward should the host plant itself be in jeopardy from changing seasons or weather patterns. 

“We’ve always known that there’s a risk to the species in the face of climate change,” she says. “If we don't know the host plant, we don't know if that's at risk, and then how quickly the habitat could be at risk.”

With the snow melting earlier and earlier on top of the mountains each winter comes the likelihood of a shifting ecosystem, which affects all kinds of species.  The flowers this butterfly needs – or the host plant it feeds on as a caterpillar – may not always be there – or not at the right time.  

Holman says a food source can change and there’s some evidence that long ago the host plant for this caterpillar was violet. “And here in the Presidential Range, we actually don't have a lot of violet present,” she says, “so maybe at one time it was present, but not now. So it likely evolved to eat a different plant.”

Credit Sean Hurley
Holman on the mountain

For these four butterflies, today, the time has come.  As Heidi Holman and Steve Fuller hand gather the butterflies into tiny mesh tents for transport and we head out on the trail, Holman says the females will be released near Tuckerman’s Ravine and the Lake of the Clouds hut - in the places she originally caught them.  

“From this vantage, you can start to see where the habitat is on the landscape,” Holman says. “We're overlooking the Lake of the Clouds Hut and also out over Tuckerman’s Ravine and you can see a split along the ridge line. And the green vegetation heading down into the ravine is indicative of habitat that we're looking for for the butterfly.”

If you’ve been to the summit of Mount Washington, you probably remember it as an almost alien landscape of sharpened boulders tipping this way and that.

But there are patches of greenery within the fields of jagged stone - and hidden in those grasses and low shrubs dotted with tiny flowers - golden rod, vaccinium, Indian pokeweed -  are the fritillary.  “The butterflies will suddenly just pop up out of the vegetation,” Holman says, “they're like popcorn.”

Above Tuckerman’s Ravine Holman crouches over a brambley garden of mountain shrub and takes one and then another butterfly from the mesh tent and sets them down. “So we grab all four wings,” Holman says, “so that she doesn't flutter.  And she's safe.”

Credit Sean Hurleey
Returning a butterfly nearly in the place she found it.

This lone White Mountain fritillary is safe for now.  Heidi Holman and Steve Fuller are hoping to ensure the species as a whole stays safe into the future.

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.
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