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Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot Butterfly

“The Little Things That Run the World”—That’s how E. O. Wilson once referred to invertebrates, the objects of his affection and study. These creatures play a disproportionately powerful role in the affairs of the planet: In 1987, Wilson surmised that there were 42,580 species of vertebrates described by humankind—including a paltry 4000 mammals—versus 990,000 species of invertebrates, the majority beetles. Most, however, remain undiscovered and undescribed, adding up to perhaps as many as a whopping 30 million. And as Wilson pointed out, both in a Conservation Biology essay and in a Nova program, these busy little creatures are keeping the planet alive: pollinating plants, composting waste, returning nutrients to forests, comprising a third of the biomass on earth. SAVE THEM ALL: One invertebrate that has been described only to face imminent extinction is the Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot Butterfly, which exists in some 33 square miles of New Mexico, in the meadows around the town of Cloudcroft. Like so many invertebrates, it is dependent on a single plant, New Mexico beardtongue or Penstemon neomexicanus, which itself is endemic to the Sacramento and Capitan mountains: The adult checkerspots lay their eggs only the leaves of this plant, found in mixed-conifer forests at the 7,800-9000 foot range. Threats are proliferating: Road construction, development, livestock grazing, pesticide spraying, and invasive species, and climate change are crowding out the butterfly and its host plant. In 2001, the species was proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act but several years later, the proposal was withdrawn pending the development of a draft conservation plan. That plan, however, offers less hope for the species since it applies only to publicly-owned land (which amounts to half the remaining checkerspot habitat), and has no force or effect on private land. WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity sued to force evaluation for an E.S.A. listing for the checkerspot, but in September, 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service denied the petition, saying there were no “current significant threats,” a decision termed “reckless and illegal” by the Guardians. Michael Nivison, a former mayor of Cloudcroft, had a different perspective: He told High Country News that the process of developing a conservation plan has changed minds in the town: “We’re a tourist community, so it allows us to maximize another facet of the mountains where we live to draw tourists here.” He failed to mention, however, that Otero County, where the butterfly is found, continues to pursue a policy of spraying pesticides that could potentially drive the species to extinction.
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