The disappearance of the exquisite Karner blue butterfly signalled further declines in the rare oak savannahs the brilliantly coloured insect inhabited. Undaunted, some naturalists, like Ontario Nature’s Peter Carson, believe this winged jewel can still make a comeback.
By Peter Christie
When the endangered Karner blue butterfly abruptly blinked out of existence in Ontario 20 years ago, Peter Carson almost literally saw it happen.
A life-long butterfly enthusiast and naturalist, Carson was hiking in what is now the St. Williams Conservation Reserve near his southern Ontario home when he glimpsed perhaps the last Karner blue seen alive in the province. The butterfly was a winking of azure – like a piece of bright sky close to the ground. It turned above the field grasses and flowers, and then, suddenly, it vanished.
“It was one of those things where I came away wondering if I had actually seen it,” remembers Carson of that late spring day in 1991. “It was up and gone in short order. When I went back, I couldn’t find it … I think that was the end of them.” None has been sighted in the province since.
The story of the disappearance of the Karner blue, a small but strikingly beautiful butterfly, has a unique place in Ontario’s growing library of biodiversity tragedies. Among the first insects designated as an endangered species in the province, back in 1990, the butterfly became the poster animal for Ontario’s shrinking pockets of the world’s rarest habitat: oak savannah. Attempts to save the butterfly were too little, too late, however, and efforts to bring it back spawned one of the province’s earliest species-at-risk recovery teams – among the first examples of the dozens of similar teams currently working to save other rare species in Ontario.
But now, the tale of the Karner blue may have a different lesson to teach. In February 2009, the butterfly’s species-at-risk designation in Ontario was changed from “endangered” to “extirpated.” While the move recognizes that the Karner blue is probably gone from the province (it survives in some U.S. states), the extirpated listing also removes any legal deadline under Ontario’s three-year-old revamped Endangered Species Act for the government to develop plans to foster the butterfly’s return.
After two decades of recovery work, and just as a possible reintroduction of the species to Ontario looked more promising than ever, the provincial government’s active interest in the Karner blue has gone the way of the butterfly itself – extinguished, indefinitely.
“I think the ball has been dropped.” Speaking from his home north of Long Point, Carson – usually a tireless conservationist – sounds weary. For the past three decades, he has championed many of southern Ontario’s most remarkable Carolinian ecosystems and species, including the Karner blue. He has been president, director or founder of groups as diverse as the Norfolk Field Naturalists, Ontario Nature, Wildlands League, Tallgrass Ontario, Long Point Basin Land Trust and the Carolinian Canada Coalition. He is a member of many species-at-risk recovery groups and was co-leader of the Karner blue team. Ruddy, with a greying beard and rounded glasses, Carson looks the part of a conservation stalwart. But when he replies to my questions about a once-beloved – and now vanished – butterfly, he suddenly seems dispirited.