The Butterfly Problem

Because the government doesn't have the means to preserve endangered species, let alone a coherent plan its decisions are haphazard—and private landowners often find themselves paying for the preservation of species they've never heard of
The Butterfly Solution

Richard Schroeder is not the only person in Clatsop County, Oregon, with a butterfly problem. A few miles up the coast Northwest Conference Resorts, of San Carlos, California, is trying to build another golf course and housing complex in another patch of silverspot butterflies. Northwest Conference is run by Frank Hildreth and Donald Wudtke, two developers who would like people to know that they are not the sort of rapacious individuals one sees in the movies. "We're not fighting the system," Wudtke says. "We really believe in it." After the two men began thinking about the Oregon coast, Wudtke attended meetings of the butterfly recovery team, the group of scientists and bureaucrats set up by the Fish and Wildlife Service to guide the agency's efforts to restore the silverspot. Twenty-five professionals for a butterfly! He thought it astonishing. The scientists, Wudtke decided, were frustrated. "After eight years they hadn't established anything," he says. "They just talked and talked." In March of 1990 Northwest Conference signed a contract to buy 276 acres of grassy sand dunes. Like Schroeder, they had a butterfly problem. Hildreth and Wudtke were confident, however, that they had a solution: building a golf course and housing right around S.z. hippolyta.

Their notion is more promising than it might seem at first glance. Silverspots, like many butterflies, are choosy about where they place their eggs. Because their caterpillars eat only the common blue violet, an inconspicuous wildflower that is customarily referred to by its scientific name, Viola adunca, they lay eggs exclusively near it. Because V. adunca grows only on open coastal grassland, that is as where S.z. hippolyta lives. As it happens, the silverspot tied its fortunes to the wrong flower, because such grassland is, in ecologists' terms, at a low "successional state," which means that it is inevitably overrun by brush—especially Scotch broom, a tall shrub with brilliant yellow flowers—and then by lodgepole pine. Luckily for the butterfly, it is also linked to a second species: Homo sapiens. Preferring to hunt in open fields, Native Americans periodically set fire to the grasslands, stopping the natural succession to brush and pine. The violets, a pioneering species, sprang up again after each burn, and in this way the butterfly flourished for centuries. Only in the 1930s did the silverspot meet its nemesis: Smokey Bear. The U.S. Forest Service campaigned against fires, and the ecological succession from grasslands to forest began anew. Scotch broom overwhelmed the six inch violets, and with them the butterfly. Although development has joined ecological succession in shrinking the silverspot's habitat along the coast, more than nine tenths of the loss has been natural, according to Paul Hammond, the lepidopterist who is the principal expert on S.z. hippolyta. Eight small populations have managed to hang on, two of which are in Clatsop County. Without human intervention, Hammond told us, Mother Nature will expunge the butterfly from the Clatsop plains by the year 2000.

Options are limited. Because the land is far more valuable than the butterfly, no market will save S.z. hippolyta. It is unlikely to be the key to a new cancer cure, and it isn't nutritious. No nationwide group of amateur lepidopterists will pay admission to a silverspot park. Without the Endangered Species Act, the last silverspots in Clatsop County would already have been bulldozed out of existence. But with the act the butterfly has a slim chance. The law prevents private-property owners from acting to destroy a species. Where the threat is of natural origin as it is for the silverspot, nothing compels the landowners to act to reverse the course of nature. They can twiddle their thumbs and wait for Scotch broom to annihilate the insect. With a recovery priority of 9, the silverspot is tied for 456th place on the Fish and Wildlife Service's priority list. Hence no federal wildlife refuge will be established on the site of either of the two proposed resorts.

The butterfly's existence in Clatsop County depends on finding a compromise that will allow the insect to be saved by its apparent enemy; developers. Such a compromise is one of the many solutions that Schroeder, working with Hammond, tried without success; it is also what Hildreth and Wudtke hope to devise. The notion is far from foolish. "Golf courses and resorts are a perfect match for the butterfly's management needs," Hammond says. Although the habitat would have to remain separate from the golf course, putting them together could still be "a win-win situation."

Before 1982 such compromises were nearly impossible. Initially aimed mainly at poachers, the act's prohibition against killing endangered species gradually expanded to encompass the destruction of their habitat as well. People were almost completely barred from altering the territory of a listed species, no matter how low its numbers. (On the land belonging to Hildreth and Wudtke, the last survey found exactly one butterfly.) Developers had no reason to cooperate with the law. Recognizing the problem, Congress altered the Endangered Species Act to create what it called an opportunity for a "unique partnership between the public and private sectors in the interest of endangered species and habitat conservation." The amendment authorized the Fish and Wildlife Service to perform what are in effect swaps. People like Hildreth and Wudtke create a "habitat conservation plan," which ensures that private development will not hurt a species's chances of survival. If the plan is acceptable, the service issues an "incidental take permit," which promises that nobody will go to jail if a bulldozer operator inadvertently flattens a butterfly. The permit does not allow anyone to wipe out a species; only a few individuals of the species, if that, may be taken, and then just by accident. But it gives developers legal protection—provided that their plans do not imperil the species.

Habitat-conservation plans are intended to reconcile private interests with public efforts to save species. They identify a species's needs and then, where necessary, redirect and scale back the developer's project. "If you trim away the fat, you rarely end up with an either-or situation," explains Michael O'Connell, a conservation biologist at the World Wildlife Fund and a co-author of Reconciling Conflicts Under the Endangered Species Act, a recent book on habitat-conservation plans. The plans are not a magic solution to all controversies over endangered species—a point noted by Michael Bean, the chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund's wildlife program and one of O'Connell's co-authors on Reconciling Conflicts. But, Bean argues, the plans are well suited to situations where urban development threatens an endangered species's habitat. In these cases both sides can get what they want, and society as a whole is well served.

These hopes are unlikely to be realized with any frequency. The travails of Shroeder, Hildreth, and Wudtke illustrate the near-impossibility of such compromises. Schroeder proposed a trade: he would put a few fairways on existing habitat to the south, and plant violets in an area to the north. The Fish and Wildlife Service said neither yes nor no; it stalled, asking for more studies. Then Hammond discovered more butterfly habitat. The resort, to be economically viable, would extend into that newly found habitat. An honest man, Hammond reported his findings. The plan collapsed. No one believed that the service would expose itself to the charge of compromising the interests of a species. "They just sat on their hands," says Dennis Murphy, the conservation biologist, who is on the butterfly recovery team. "It was better than making a decision."

Despite this unhappy history, Hildreth and Wudtke are pressing on. Last summer the two men showed us a color map depicting their preliminary habitat-conservation plan. It set aside twenty-five acres, a tenth of the resort, for the butterfly. Hildreth said they had spent more than $50,000 determining the right area; another $200,000 was destined for environmental studies. "We'd like to think we're doing it as just part of good planning," Wudtke explained. Construction would be starting soon, and when the complex was finished the butterfly land would be managed properly instead of being overgrown by Scotch broom.

A few weeks later Hammond listened politely to our description of their plan. He sat in an office full of wide wooden trays, each of which contained dozens of spotted butterflies mounted on pins. He was, he stressed, not opposed to such projects. But he thought that the area the two men had set aside was probably too small. They would need to add more land. "And then," he said, "it will get expensive."

No doubt Hildreth and Wudtke will add as little as possible, and the Fish and Wildlife Service will find some reason to nitpick. One might call the resultant paralysis the silverspot syndrome: no resort, no butterfly, a lose-lose situation that combines the worst of both worlds.

Such an outcome may not be rare. The two butterfly plans were created by the developers alone. A likelier route to success, according to the authors of Reconciling Conflicts, is to enlist the aid of local governments and environmental groups, all parties investing time and money in drafting the plan. (Among other things, this makes the plan less litigation-prone.) But that drives up costs substantially, and sometimes drives them beyond the $250,000 spent by Hildreth and Wudtke. Ultimately, preparation of the plan becomes so expensive that it is worthwhile only when the stakes are high—that is, when the value of the land in question is high. If land is expensive, so is setting it aside for the species, as many habitat conservation plans require. Near Palm Springs, California, for example, a plan has carved out a 17,000-acre reserve for the Coachella Valley fringe toed lizard, using $25 million from developers, the Nature Conservancy, and federal and state agencies. If it survives internecine squabbling, a plan under development in Austin, Texas, will buy habitat for two bird, five invertebrate, and two plant species at a cost of more than $93 million. Unsurprisingly, only ten habitat-conservation plans have been accepted in the past nine years.

More important, the plans are only a means of choosing how to save a species. They do not decide whether to save it. In the eyes of the law, listing a species is equivalent to making that decision; if human plans threaten the species, they must be set aside. Conservationists often claim that such stark conflicts will be uncommon. (Peter Raven, the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has argued that trade-offs are "truly necessary" only in "rare cases.") But the United States has thousands of people like Richard Schroeder and it has thousands of endangered species. Inevitably, they will collide—everywhere and often. In these fights, according to the law, only one side is supposed to win.

Technically, losers do have one hope: the God Committee. But it can be convened only when the controversy involves the federal government; if private developers do not need federal permits, there is no avenue of appeal. In practice even this limited way out is rarely used, because making the appeal places the appellant in the unenviable position of going on record as wanting to do in a species. Few wish to be seen that way- one reason that the God Committee has been called on only three times in the fourteen years of its existence. (The third appeal occurred just last September, pitting the Bureau of Land Management against the northern spotted owl. A decision is expected later this year.)

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