Published Date Written by David EastmanOne of the enjoyable aspects of receiving Wildlines, New Hampshire Fish and Game's quarterly newsletter of the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program is learning about some environmental intern's work on a little known species. With great sensitivity given to the species researched, the rest of us can learn more about something we are pretty vague about until reading a seasonal entry in this publication. Now, I know that Mount Washington has a unique butterfly or two that exist only there, but that is all I knew about that fact until reading further.
Last summer, Kristan Patneaude from the Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt. described two alpine butterflies that might be in trouble with climate change. She said that on calm sunny days, visitors to the White Mountains rocky slopes might be lucky enough to quickly glimpse a rare sight among the tundra vegetation. A dully colored White Mountain Arctic butterfly might be blending in with the lichen–covered rocks they frequently perch on. Its delicate wings are good camouflage. However a bright-orange White Mountain fritillary might be flying nearby along wet outcroppings or snowbanks, and would be more noticeable.
To the unitiated, both these butterflies might seem quite normal to experience. But then one would have to realize they are being seen above the 4,000 foot level, and that is tough living above tree line. Here lies one of the most unpredictable and inhospitable habitats in the Northeast. The White Mountain Arctic and fritillary are two subspecies that have become isolated within the remarkable alpine zone of the Presidentials. The White Mountain Arctic lives above 4,921 feet of elevation in sedge meadows, characterized by its host plant, Bigelow's sedge. These butterflies are also only active from late June to late July. You might observe one while crossing over to Lakes of the Cloud hut, if lucky.
But information on the White Mountain fritillary is sparse. It is known that these butterflies prefer wet meadows of snowbank communities in the alpine zone above 4,000 feet. However, while no host plant has yet been identified, caterpillars similar to this species' have been noted feeding on dwarf willows, alpine smartweed, and violets. The orangish fritillary adults are active from mid-July into mid-September. Both of these butterfly species require two years for full development, but it is still unknown how they survive overwintering in these mountains of ours.
Suitable habitat for these two rare butterflies depends on ground temperature, moisture, and winter snow cover. We now realize global climate change is altering unique characteristics of alpine habitats.
Warming temperatures at these high elevations could allow a northward shift in forest species, plants and animals included. Species that occurred at lower elevations might move uphill and compete or even displace alpine specialist species such as these two Lepidoptera. This is why ongoing research by young grad students and other interns is urgently needed in order to understand just how rare these are, and what we can do to protect them before it is too late.
While you may not become an entomologist and join the ranks of educated conservationists, you can do your part by always donating to organizations such the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. This aspect of the New Hampshire Fish and Game department depends on voluntary contributions to match state funds on a 50-50 basis. Before its creation, only those species paid for with hunting and fishing licenses were managed and researched. This has since been expanded and is doing quite well since inception. The program's progress is something to be proud of, and occasionally we see its work profiled on Channel 11, New Hampshire's PBS TV station. Ask your elected officials to support funding for projects as these endangered alpine butterflies, or even find more money for such an endeavor. It always helps to inform others how butterflies uniquely exist and encourage them to help in anyway, too.
Staying on established trails in the alpine zone of the White Mountain National Forest is important for all the fragile plant species and other fauna up there. Rocks might be tough on your knees and feet, but there is habitat in this zone that needs all the sensitivity you can give it. Easily crushed miniature tundra plants completely need relief from the hordes of hikers that enjoy the Whites in season.
If you do spot one of these butterflies this summer, you can report it to the New Hampshire Wildlife Sightings website: nhwildlifesightings.unh.edu Citizen science can be a boon to strapped researchers that cannot be everywhere, every time, and you might make a valuable contribution in a most enjoyable fashion. Wildlines is funded in part through the sale of Conservation License Plates: www.mooseplate.com if you would like to display your enthusiastic participation. It all helps, and it will make you feel like a valid earth citizen.