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The butterfly fauna of extreme south Florida and the Keys may constitute the most endangered suite of species in the continental United States. At least 15 full species of butterflies can be found only in south Florida and the Keys, within the United States. Many of these, such as the iridescent turquoise-spotted, black and crimson Atala; the white-spotted, orange-blotched, smoky-gray Bartram's Scrub-Hairstreak; and the orange-topped, blackened violet/gray-bottomed Florida Leafwing, are spectacular. For another 6 species, the subspecies resident in south Florida is unique within the United States (although other subspecies occur in southern Texas, mainly as strays).
Most of these special butterflies are found in association with either tropical hardwood hammocks or with pine rockland. All have suffered from the catastrophic loss of habitat caused by converting most of south Florida's natural habitat into urban and suburban developments. Unfortunately, this process continues. In addition, Florida's war upon mosquitoes, by massively and repetitively assaulting the environment with toxic chemicals, has added the beauty and brilliance of butterflies to its collection of collateral damage.
One of the butterflies that has all but disappeared is the Miami Blue. Common throughout southern Florida through the 1970s, populations of this small gem of a butterfly declined precipitously throughout the 1980s. By the end of the 1980s it could be found only at a few locations in the Florida Keys. By 1992, the only known colony was on Key Biscayne. After the destruction of the colony on Key Biscayne by Hurricane Andrew, there were no confirmed reports of Miami Blues for 7 years, even though many butterfly enthusiasts were actively searching for the butterfly during this time.
In the fall of 1999, NABA member Jane Ruffin visited Bahia Honda State Park, on Bahia Honda Key in Monroe County, Florida. Among the blues flying that day at Bahia Honda, Jane was extremely excited to see some that she believed were Miami Blues. She emailed images of the blues to me. I flew to Bahia Honda the next day - thrilled to know that a flagship butterfly was still flying.
However, with but a single known colony of the Florida subspecies of Miami Blue in the world, we were extremely concerned that a disaster could lead to extinction. A hurricane could destroy the colony - as Andrew had destroyed the colony on Key Biscayne; a disease epidemic or an outbreak of parasites or predators could doom the colony; intentional or unintentional alteration of the habitat of the butterfly - even though it was located at a Florida State Park - could cause its numbers to plunge below a viable population size; chemicals used in mosquito-control spraying could waft onto the colony; or a human butterfly collector could try to corner the market on Miami Blues - much as collectors of dead tree snails killed as many tree snails in a hammock as they could find and then burned the hammock so that no one else could have that variety of tree snail.
Because of these concerns, in June of 2000 NABA petitioned the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list Miami Blue as a federally endangered species on an emergency basis. The petition itself was largely written by Mark Salvato who had extensive experience studying the butterflies of south Florida. Unfortunately, due to policies set at the highest levels of the federal government, the USFWS did not act upon our petition in a timely manner, even though required to do so by law. After Dennis Olle, NABA's south Florida-based, pro bono lawyer and all around Miami Blue activist, pointed out to the USFWS that they were required to address our petition, they finally did so, in January of 2002. Although they found that NABA had presented substantial information that listing Miami Blue as an endangered species was warranted, they declined to list the butterfly on an emergency basis. However, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to realize that there cannot be much more of an emergency than a formerly common, widespread species being now known from a single site containing perhaps 50 adults. In discussing the situation with people associated with other environmental groups and at all levels of the USFWS, it became clear that the USFWS would not place any species on the endangered species list unless ordered to do so by a court.
Soon after learning of the USFWS decision, NABA drafted plans for the Miami Blue Action Plan and created the Miami Blue Fund, to fund efforts to save Miami Blues and other rare and endangered butterfly species of south Florida. The main components of the Action Plan involve studying the biology of the butterfly at Bahia Honda with the aim of learning about the crucial factors needed to expand the size of the existing colony and to create new populations. Alana Edwards, one of the founders of the NABA-Atala chapter in West Palm Beach, Florida agreed to become Coordinator of the Miami Blue Action Plan. In the summer of 2002, Ingrid Currill, a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University, joined the NABA effort and it will be she that conducts most of the on-the-ground research.
Meanwhile, the Miami Blues at Bahia Honda still faced the threats that had caused us to petition the USFWS in the first place, leaving us with three choices, 1) do nothing - which, due to the danger faced by the colony, was not really an option, 2) attempt to convince a court to order the USFWS to list the butterfly, and 3) petition the State of Florida to list Miami Blues as endangered. After numerous internal discussions, we decided to approach the State of Florida. In October of 2002, NABA began discussions with Florida officials and on November 13, formally petitioned the State of Florida to declare Miami Blue to be an endangered species. In contrast to the federal government, the State of Florida considered and acted upon NABA's petition with incredible swiftness and, on December 10, 2002 declared Miami Blue to be an endangered species on an emergency basis. This was one of the very few times that the State of Florida had taken emergency action for any reason, and the first time it had done so on behalf of an endangered species Many state officials played positive roles in this process, but special credit must be given to Benjamin Brumberg, Ombudsman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who patiently worked with NABA members - explaining what information NABA needed to provide and to whom it needed to provide it. The listing by the State of Florida is important for a number of reasons. First, it provides major penalties for harming a Miami Blue - a $5000 fine and jail time. Second, it heightens the awareness of people throughout the Florida government about the butterfly, thus lessening inadvertent actions, such as habitat destruction or mosquito spraying, that might harm the butterfly. Thirdly, it has led to increased public visibility of Miami Blues, and this helps all butterflies.
During the course of the discussions with federal and state officials in the Fall of 2002, everyone involved agreed that it would be wise to begin a laboratory breeding program as an insurance policy against disaster, much as had been done previously with Schaus' Swallowtail. The McGuire Center for Lepidoptera, headed by Tom Emmel at the University of Florida at Gainesville was selected to manage the captive breeding. In December, Jaret Daniels of the McGuire Center traveled to Bahia Honda State Park to collect eggs to begin a breeding program, but because the waning numbers of individual Miami Blues seen during his visit were so low, he prudently decided to wait for the population to wax larger. On a visit to Bahia Honda State Park by myself, Alana Edwards, Ingrid Currill, Jaret Daniels, and others, on February 6 and 7, 2003, the population appeared to be on an upswing and so efforts to begin captive breeding may soon begin.
Unfortunately, Miami Blues are not the only South Florida butterflies whose future is imperiled in the United States. Florida Leafwings and Bartram's Scrub-Hairstreak, two species that inhabit pine rockland and depend upon pineland croton have been declining. Martial Scrub-Hairstreaks, though still present at a number of locations in the Keys and South Florida, have declined and bear watching. Zestos Skipper, once fairly frequent is now rarely seen. There have been no reliable reports of the never common Amethyst Hairstreak in more than 10 years. And spectacular Florida Purplewings, which were once fairly frequent throughout the tropical hardwood hammocks of South Florida and the Keys, may now be down to a last colony on Lignum Vitae Key. And, of course, Schaus' Swallowtail is not out of the woods yet.
The response of NABA members - generously contributing to the Miami Blue Fund and providing on-the-ground support - has been the crucial factor giving Miami Blues a chance for survival. Continued support will allow us to carry through on our promise to Miami Blues and to extend help to the other endangered butterflies of South Florida. We plan to conduct an extensive survey of all South Florida butterflies, to learn current distributions and abundances and to plan for the future while we specifically try to help Miami Blues make a come-back. If you want to ensure that these butterflies are their to delight your grandchildren, please support the Miami Blue Fund, sending your contribution to: Miami Blue Fund, NABA, 4 Delaware Rd., Morristown, NJ 07960.