Feds act to protect 2 butterflies; farmers wary

Farm Forum

PIERRE (AP) – The federal government has added two Upper Midwest butterfly species to its list of threatened and endangered species, pleasing conservationists but worrying farm groups who say it could make it harder for their members to earn a living off the land.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Oct. 23 named the Dakota skipper as threatened and the Poweshiek skipperling as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Both of the inch-long, brown-and-orange butterflies were once found in eight Midwestern and Plains states, but their populations declined due to several reasons, including the loss of native prairie vegetation and agriculture, the agency said.

“We recognize the reason we still have any Dakota skippers or Poweshiek skipperlings on the landscape at all is the conservation ethic of ranchers who have had the foresight to conserve grasslands in the Upper Midwest,” Tom Melius, Midwest regional director for Fish and Wildlife, said in a statement. “Our hope is to continue to work with landowners and partners to conserve these butterflies and the valuable habitat they depend upon.”

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, praised the listings. In a statement, she said that “protecting the last high-quality prairie habitats for the butterflies will keep these special places safe, along with all the other plants and animals that need them to survive.”

But U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he wonders if the listings will even help the butterflies, and he worries the move will hurt the farming, ranching, energy and transportation industries.

“This is most alarming since no studies have been done to estimate the value the public places on preserving the two butterflies nor any examination of how their decline or extinction would affect our ecosystem,” he said.

The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association worries about harm to private property rights, Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson told The Bismarck Tribune.

“We think this will have implications for those who make their living on the land,” she said.

The South Dakota Farmers Union and Farm Bureau both will be monitoring the upcoming designation of critical habitat for the butterflies, according to the Argus Leader newspaper.

“The devil is in the details with a recovery plan and a habitat area,” Farm Bureau Executive Director Wayne Smith said.

The Dakota skipper is found in western Minnesota, northeastern South Dakota and the eastern half of North Dakota. Small numbers of Poweshiek skipperlings survive Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s been several years since the butterfly has been seen in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas.

Q & A from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Q: Has the Service made a final decision about critical habitat?

A: No, we have not made a final determination on designating critical habitat for the Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling; that determination will be made at a later date. We are continuing our evaluation of the information we have received since critical habitat was proposed Oct. 24, 2013. In particular, we are evaluating if any of the lands proposed as critical habitat may be excluded from the final determination. When proposing critical habitat, the Service has little discretion under the law: If the area meets the legal definition, usually the Service must include it in the critical habitat proposal. However, when making the final decision to designate critical habitat, the Service has some discretion. We may exclude areas from a final designation based on a variety of factors, including the implementation of plans or preservation of partnerships that help conserve the species. If landowners have contracts or agreements (i.e. Conservation Reserve Program, WaterBank, easements) that protect or improve native plants in areas proposed as critical habitat, the Service may be able to exclude those areas from the final critical habitat designation.

Q: How does the Endangered Species Act protect listed species?

A: The ESA protects species by prohibiting take (harming, harassing, injuring or killing a species). Actions that cause direct mortality are prohibited, but significant habitat modification or habitat degradation that leads to the death or injury of listed animals are also forms of take. States may also have their own laws that protect federally threatened and endangered species.

In addition to the general prohibitions against take, section 7 of the ESA protects listed species by requiring that all federal agencies consult with the Service to ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species. Through consultation, the Service works with federal agencies and advises them on whether their actions would harm a species or its critical habitat and ways to avoid that harm and further the conservation of the species. Applicants for federal permits or federal funding, including private landowners, often play an important role in these consultations by providing information or assistance to the consulting agencies.

Listing under the ESA helps conserve species in other ways. Listed species often become priorities for grants and other funding because the ESA requires all federal agencies to conserve threatened and endangered species. Additionally, the ESA requires the Service to prepare a recovery plan for all listed species. Recovery plans identify and prioritize conservation actions necessary for a species’ recovery, which helps direct funding toward the most important conservation actions.

Q: How does listing affect private landowners who have these butterflies on their property?

A: Theoretically, any activity that harms or destroys (i.e. takes) a butterfly or its larvae would be prohibited. However, we recognize the Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling remain only on lands where management has allowed them to survive, while the butterflies have died off elsewhere. These landowners deserve credit for their stewardship, and we want to encourage the management they practice that supports the butterflies.

To minimize impacts to landowners and promote continued cooperation with them while trying to recover and eventually delist the Dakota skipper, the Service established a 4(d) rule under the ESA. Section 4(d) allows the Service to develop special regulations that can reduce or expand the normal protections for species listed as threatened (but not for species listed as endangered) to conserve the species. The 4(d) rule for the Dakota skipper exempts incidental take of Dakota skippers caused by certain routine livestock operation activities (including grazing) and mowing of recreational trails. See question 9 for more detail on the 4(d) rule.

Any take that results from private landowner activities not exempted under the 4(d) rule would require a permit from the Service. Therefore, private landowners with Dakota skippers on their property should become familiar with the contents of the 4(d) rule and contact the Service if they have questions. Actions that may cause take and require a permit from the Service include prescribed burns, haying before July 16, broadcast herbicide treatments, some insecticide treatments, and permanent conversion of the Dakota skipper’s grassland habitats. A separate set of Questions and Answers titled “Dakota Skipper 4(d) Rule” provides more information.

The 4(d) rule does not apply to take of the Poweshiek skipperling because it is listed as endangered, and the ESA does not allow 4(d) rules for endangered species. Take of Poweshiek skipperlings would not be allowed without a permit from the Service. In addition to the activities listed above that take Dakota skippers (e.g., prescribed fire), interruption of groundwater flows into prairie fens where Poweshiek skipperling lives may result in take. At this time, Poweshiek skipperlings are found only certain to be found in Wisconsin and Michigan in the United States.

Landowners could also be affected indirectly by provisions of section 7 of the ESA. Section 7 protects listed species by requiring that federal agencies ensure their actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species. To meet this requirement, federal agencies must consult with the Service. Although only the section 9 take prohibitions apply directly to private landowners, federal agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service would have to consult with the Service on their actions that could affect these butterflies, even if the actions are on private property. In Michigan, where Poweshiek skipperlings are primarily on wetlands regulated by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, actions that require a Clean Water Act section 404 permit would be subject to review by the Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.