Regulators Cast a Huge Net For Rare Butterfly
The Quino Checkerspot Butterfly is the latest endangered species to cause confusion and controversy in Southern California, joining such famed animals as the Stephens kangaroo rat, the California gnatcatcher and the Delhi sands flower loving fly.
The butterfly was at first thought to live only in a few regions of Riverside and San Diego counties, where colonies have been found. But the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a map in January showing potential Quino Checkerspot habitat in parts of six counties in Southern California — San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Ventura.
As part of the California Environmental Quality Act process, a botanist must determine whether a potential building site is home to endangered species. With the listing, the Quino Checkerspot is one more species that botanists must look for.
But the Fish & Wildlife map has been attacked, with scientists and developers wondering why such an extensive survey must be done for an insect that has not been spotted in some of the areas for more than 70 years. Further complicating matters is the fact that the adult butterflies only appear for periods of four to eight weeks a year, which makes surveying difficult.
The butterfly and its larvae are found around several plants, including plantago and owl's clover. The orange, black and white spotted butterflies are several inches long. Decades ago, the Quino Checkerspot was one of the most common butterflies in Southern California. Historical records show that the butterflies lived in the Santa Clarita Valley's Mint Canyon area in northern Los Angeles County during the 1920s and in coastal Orange County during the 1930s.
"I'm thrilled that it was listed," said University of Nevada-Reno biology professor Dennis Murphy, who first petitioned for the listing in 1988. But Murphy, who has conducted butterfly surveys for landowners, criticized the behavior of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for what he termed "draconian measures" for surveying private property. He said property owners in Riverside County have been treated poorly by the service, and the surveys are expensive.
Builders immediately criticized the map showing potential butterfly habitat in parts of six counties. But Jim Bartel, an assistant field supervisor for the Fish & Wildlife Service, said the map merely showed graphically what the service's 1997 protocol on the listing had said in writing. He said the building industry requested the map.
"Now of course, they wished they hadn't asked for a map," he said.
Animosity against the listing first surfaced last year in Riverside County, where the Board of Supervisors tried to exempt individual homebuilders from complying with federal endangered species regulations related to it. But a judge ruled against the Board of Supervisors. (See CP&DR, December 1998.)
In February 1998, the county's planning director reported to the Board of Supervisors that the butterflies had not held up any of the 300 projects reviewed since its listing, according to The Press-Enterprise of Riverside.
In 1998, several hundred surveys were conducted, Bartel said. Less than 10 were rejected, he said.
More recently, however, surveys have found butterflies in the Temecula and Murrietta areas of the county, as well as in Southern San Diego County. The findings are affecting several projects. For example, the developer of the 1,923-unit Rancho Bella Vista near Temecula must receive an "incidental take" permit to proceed with the project, according to Bartel. Another developer has planned mitigation banking to preserve habitat for the butterfly. Many developers see the mitigation bank as a way to avoid future gridlock.
The fuss about the butterfly has raised questions about the effectiveness of Habitat Conservation Plans, which the Clinton administration has pushed as a way to avoid fights over a single species.
Bartel said Riverside County does not yet have a regional multi-species habitat conservation plan. The plan to save habitat for the Stephens kangaroo rat in the county, for example, was only for a single species.
Murphy criticized Riverside County for refusing to plan several years ago for future listings. Any multi-species plan in Riverside County is three to five years away, he said.
"Riverside County itself has set the stage for an economic train wreck by not getting involved in the multi-species planning that was available to them," he said.
The Western Riverside County Multi-Species Plan should be done within two years, if not sooner, said Corky Larson, executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments, the organization that is preparing the plan for Riverside County. "I think we're on a fast track," she said.
"The Stephens kangaroo rat was a very bad experience for Riverside County. Some resource agencies were difficult to deal with. There were a lot of bad feelings left over from that," Larson said.
In Orange County, the Orange Central Coast Natural Communities Conservation Plan lists the Quino Checkerspot butterfly as a conditionally covered species, Bartel explained. If a minor population of the butterflies is found, developers can take the species. If a major population is found, the issue would have to be addressed through the Endangered Species Act. No surveys from Orange County on the butterfly have been submitted yet, Bartel said.
"It's 100% guaranteed that no one will find the butterfly in Orange, Los Angeles or Ventura Counties," said Murphy, the UNR biologist. If any Quino Checkerspots existed there, avid butterfly collectors would have found them by now, he said.
In San Diego County, which adopted a Multiple Species Conservation Program in 1997, Murphy said the structure of the MSCP should make it "relatively easy" to create a plan to save the butterfly there.
Some of the fiercest criticism of the Fish & Wildlife Service has come from the Building Industry Association.
Borre Winckel of the BIA of Southern California in Riverside wrote a recent column in an industry newsletter about the surveys.
"Our local jurisdictions are not and should not act as agents for the Fish & Wildlife Service and be made to enforce the Endangered Species Act," he wrote. "It is the builder/developer who runs the risk of the consequences of an illegal take."
Winckel also wrote: "[T]his latest episode proves once again that the Service stops at nothing and is perfectly willing to risk the completion of the proposed Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan by alienating at least half the people at the policy table..."
The Quino Checkerspot has a Northern California relative, the Bay Checkerspot, which proved controversial during the early 1980s. The Bay Checkerspot butterfly is found only in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties and is listed as a federal threatened species. When the city of San Jose wanted to open a landfill at the time, the city worked with Waste Management Inc. to save land for the butterfly, Murphy said.
Jim Bartel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (760)431-9440
Dennis Murphy, University of Nevada, (775) 784-1303