Corey Kallstrom/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Thursday, July 11, 2013 | 5:15 p.m.
Ecologists are worried the Mount Charleston wildfire might just snuff out a species of butterflies known only to exist in the upper reaches of the Spring Mountains.
The Mount Charleston blue butterfly already has been proposed for inclusion on the federal endangered species list. The wildfire may push the iridescent blue butterflies whose wingspan reaches only up to 1 inch onto the brink of extinction.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Corey Kallstrom wonders, when all is said and done, what will become of the Mount Charleston blue butterfly and its habitat.
"Where the fire has burned, it has burned up to one of the core populations of the Mount Charleston blue butterfly. We have some extreme concerns," said Kallstrom, adding ecologists wouldn't know the full impact until they are able to survey the wildfire’s aftereffects.
Mike Senn, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service assistant field supervisor, said the wildfire could distress the plant life that blue butterflies depend on: a larval host plant, where the Mount Charleston blue butterflies hibernate before they hatch, and nectar plants, their primary food source.
Senn also said the fire could potentially disrupt the maturation of the butterflies, which typically come out of hibernation during the summer months.
"This would be the time when the adults would be hatching, from early July to mid-August. The fire could stop the hatch this year," Senn said.
Senn stressed that the department hadn't been able to survey the extent of the damage because of the ongoing fire, but he said the fire could decimate eggs, which are smaller than a BB, and larvae resting in the topsoil of the ground.
Firefighters were advised in their Friday morning briefing to take measures to protect the endangered blue butterfly habitat.
The Mount Charlston blue butterfly is a subspecies of the Shasta blue butterfly. Senn said the subspecies’ numbers were low – in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands – before a July 1 lightning strike sparked the fire, which has gone on to cover more than 40 square miles of Mount Charleston.
Jenny Ramirez, Spring Mountains National Recreation Area resource adviser and wildlife biologist, said there were concerns about whether adult butterflies would be able to escape the fire.
"Butterflies may only be able to fly 300 meters away, so if the fire is coming at them, they're not really going to have the opportunity to fly out the area," Ramirez said.
Senn said extinction was always a possibility, but he didn't think it was likely the Mount Charleston fire would wipe out the subspecies.
"They are a fire-adapted species because they live in that type of environment," said Senn, adding that the fire could even have beneficial effects for the butterflies in the long term. "The species needs disturbance because it likes open canopies in forests."
Senn said the butterflies weren't known to be a cornerstone of Mount Charleston's ecosystem, but he said they played a role in pollination. More importantly, Senn said, the butterflies are a good indicator of climate change and drought.
"They exist in such a small area and they're more sensitive to changes in weather. If it tends to be dry, there aren't a lot of hatches. We're finding correlations between more snowfall and more hatches," Senn said.
Other species that are endemic to Spring Mountains and could potentially be harmed by the fire include the Palmer's chipmunk, the Charleston ant and various other types of butterflies.
Staff reporters Tovin Lapan and Brian Nordli contributed to this report.