RENO — A coalition of conservation groups today filed a scientific petition with U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton in Washington DC to list the Sand Mountain blue butterfly (Euphilotes pallescens arenamontana) as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, and designate critical habitat for its survival, conservation and recovery.
The butterfly is entirely dependent on approximately 1000 acres of Kearney buckwheat shrub habitat at Sand Mountain, in the Great Basin desert east of Fallon, Nevada, which is intensively impacted by off-road vehicles (ORVs). ORVs can kill butterflies and their host plant, the buckwheat. The heavy, year-round ORV use at Sand Mountain restricts establishment of young plants essential to maintaining the habitat. Given their restricted geographic ranges, endemic species are generally considered more prone to extinction than widespread species.
“BLM has shamefully allowed Sand Mountain to be taken over by destructive off-roading, and made many political decisions to avoid upsetting off-roaders that allow continued harm to endemic species,” said Charles S. Watson, Director of the Carson City-based Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association, which has been working to protect Sand Mountain since 1961. “BLM ignored earlier scientific studies of the dunes which showed off-road vehicles harmed wildlife and habitat.”
Sand Mountain Recreation Area (SMRA) consists of 4,795 acres of BLM public land open to unrestricted off-road vehicle use. Sand Mountain’s small size, lack of protective restrictions, and relative closeness to cities in Nevada and California make it a mecca for off-road vehicle enthusiasts. Habitat for this species has suffered extensive destruction and modification by ORV use.
From 1993-2003 the BLM reported a 25% increase in visitor use at the recreation area, and ORV use is still going up. This increase has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of ORV trails through the Sand Mountain Blue habitat. The Kearney buckwheat was once pervasive in the vicinity of the dunes but in the past five years most plants have been destroyed by ORVs. The key to preserving the Sand Mountain blue butterfly is to ensure the continued existence of its host plant, Kearney buckwheat, in large enough numbers to maintain a viable population of the butterfly.
“This attractive Great Basin endemic butterfly is known to live only at Sand Mountain, but BLM is letting its only habitat be destroyed by unmanaged off-road vehicle use,” said Daniel R. Patterson, CBD Desert Ecologist. “The Sand Mountain blue butterfly is a beautiful part of our American natural heritage, and it needs full protection under U.S. law now to save it from being wiped out by off-roading.”
Last spring, BLM biologists recommended a vehicle closure on the best remaining habitat at Sand Mountain to protect the Sand Mountain blue butterfly, the Kearny buckwheat and several other rare endemic species. But BLM mangers decided to adopt only a voluntary encouraged route system within the sensitive species habitat, and it is not working.
Karen Schambach of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the “tread lightly” signs have not worked. “When asked, BLM could not identify anywhere where voluntary off-road vehicle restrictions have worked to conserve or restore habitat, and it’s not working at Sand Mountain,” she said.
In fact, after nearly four months of monitoring the effectiveness of the voluntary measures, BLM concluded that noncompliance is occurring throughout the area and all routes through the habitat continue to be used by ORVs. Educational efforts and increased signage are routinely ignored as off-roaders leave the routes, often running over posted signs and using the Kearny buckwheat as ORV jumps. Therefore, the existing measures are undoubtedly ineffective, and unless more successful measures are put in place, the Sand Mountain blue butterfly’s habitat will be completely destroyed. For that reason, the groups are proposing that the Sand Mountain blue butterfly and its habitat be fully protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“It is unfortunate that the BLM and ORV riders are unwilling to protect the last 1000 acres of habitat for the Sand Mountain blue,” said Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director of the Xerces Society, “We now have no choice but to take this to the next level and protect this butterfly and its habitat through the Endangered Species Act.”
Nevada, the fastest-growing state in the nation, is home to a number of desert-adapted species that exist nowhere else many of which are now in direct competition with cities like Las Vegas and Reno, which are increasingly demanding vast amounts of water. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, the Center has identified over 400 species vulnerable to extinction in Nevada. Information on species observations and habitat requirements is being used to identify areas where landscape-level protections are needed and feasible.