When Erica McClaren looks at the coastal landscape of Helliwell Provincial Park, she feels hopeful a rare species of butterfly will return to its former home.
As a conservation specialist for BC Parks, McClaren is among a large team of scientists and community members who began restoring the park’s coastal bluff meadows in the spring of 2015. The goal is to create an ecological community suitable for the release of hundreds of captive Taylor’s checkerspot larvae next spring. The last time the small orange and black butterfly was seen in the park was in the early 1990s.
“It’s really exciting to help the recovery of a species. We’ve been spending five years getting the habitat ready for butterflies to come back and I think it’s time to throw them out there,” said McClaren, noting the recovery team removed conifers, invasive plants, and put in plants that provide food for larvae and nectar for adult butterflies.
“You don’t want to put them back into an area where they are destined for failure. Hopefully this will give another location where Taylor’s checkerspot can exist, so it buffers their population from possibly being extirpated from B.C.”
Historically, the Taylor’s checkerspot was found in several areas of southern Vancouver Island, but now the only place they live in Canada is on private land in the Courtenay area and on Denman Island, where 10 hectares in a provincial park are a dedicated butterfly reserve.
Researchers believe habitat loss from urban development and an overabundant deer population could be the reason behind the butterfly’s disappearance on southern Vancouver Island. In Helliwell, the coastal meadows remained in an open state likely due to First Nations cultural fires, along with grazing cattle and sheep. However, once those activities stopped, conifers began to grow, soaking up water from host plants and shading out habitat for butterfly larva.
The butterflies need open meadows and plants in wet areas for the caterpillars to feed – which materialized on Denman Island due to logging. Some of the logged areas were turned into park and conservation lands that now provides habitat for a small population of Taylor’s checkerspot. Their numbers, however, are rapidly declining. Keeping the area free from trees and invasive plants is an ongoing challenge.
Erika Bland, land manager of the Denman Conservancy Association, is among the many individuals who’ve dedicated countless hours towards Taylor’s checkerspot recovery. She’s hopeful the species will recover, but noted private landowners can play a huge role.
“Many people have patches of suitable checkerspot habitat on the lands where they live. I think engaging private landowners, in combination with maintaining the small populations in existing known refuge areas on public park and conservation lands, offers the most hopeful scenario,” said Bland, noting many people on Denman Island have been supportive of the recovery work.
“It is challenging to do meaningful conservation work that is so focused on such a small creature who occupies such a small area. I like to think that folks will continue to support the recovery efforts here and in the region, and create and take care of all the special places where Taylor’s checkerspot can live and thrive.”
During the last two years, part of the restoration and habitat enhancement in Helliwell and Denman Island Park has been supported through the BC Parks Licence Plate Program. So far, over 150,000 specialty licence plates have been sold, generating more than $4.1 million for programs and projects related to conservation, community engagement and Indigenous relations.
This year, the licence plate program will support eight restoration projects throughout the province, including long-term wetland restoration in King George VI Park, Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park, Burges James Gadsden Park and the Lac du Bois Grasslands Protected Area.
For more information about the BC Parks Licence Plate Program, visit http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/licence-plates/
For more information about the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly visit https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/species-ecosystems-at-risk/implementation/conservation-projects-partnerships/taylors-checkerspot