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News

Bringing Butterflies Back From the Brink in Helliwell Park

Taylor's Checkerspot butterfly in Helliwell provincial Park.

One of the first Taylor’s Checkerspot butterflies seen in Helliwell Provincial Park in more than 25 years. Photo by J. Heron.

Taylor’s Checkerspot butterflies vanished from Hornby Island in the mid-1990s. At the time, lepidopterists thought they were the last Canadian population of the imperilled butterflies, and there were only a few locations where they existed south of the border. Total extinction of the species seemed imminent, but new Taylor’s Checkerspot populations were discovered on Denman Island (2005) and near Campbell River (2018).

This spring, Taylor’s Checkerspot larvae that were raised at the Greater Vancouver Zoo were released in Helliwell Provincial Park. After conducting butterfly surveys in May, biologists can happily confirm that at least 25 of the caterpillars survived to become adult butterflies, and there may be more that were not seen. It’s a hopeful sign that the co-operative efforts to re-establish a population of the endangered butterflies on Hornby Island are paying off.

2020 Taylor's Checkerspot butterfly survey in Helliwell Provincial Park.

Helliwell Provincial Park butterfly survey. (L to R) Dawn Marks, Neil Wilson, Jennifer Heron. Photo by J. Heron.

“It’s wonderful to finally see the butterflies in Helliwell again after working so long to achieve this goal”, said Jennifer Heron, Chair of the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Recovery Project Team and invertebrate conservation specialist for the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

The project team started planning for the recovery of the species in 2005, and then spent years preparing the area in collaboration with BC Parks staff, contractors and local volunteers. Trees and invasive plants were replaced with thousands of native plants and seeds to restore the open coastal bluff meadow habitat that the butterflies and many other species require.

Although the survey numbers are encouraging, Heron doesn’t expect that the first caterpillar release will result in a long-term, stable Taylor’s Checkerspot population.

“The butterflies aren’t out of the woods yet. They need to find food plants and mates, produce eggs, transition through more development stages, and then survive winter as diapause larvae,” said Heron. “It may be necessary to continue with habitat restoration and releases of captive reared butterflies for at least a few more years. “It takes a lot of cooperation to bring butterflies back from the brink of extinction.”

The public is urged to report Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly sightings to Taylors.Checkerspot@gov.bc.ca, or by using the free iNaturalist app – an easy to use species identification tool that enables citizen scientists to record and contribute important species data for projects around the globe. The public can also assist by staying on marked meadow trails in Helliwell that are delineated by ropes and restoration area signs. Trampling by people and their pets is one of the greatest threats to the butterflies and their food plants. Dogs must be on a leash according to provincial park regulations.

The Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Recovery Project Team includes representatives from BC Parks, Denman Conservancy Association, Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, Greater Vancouver Zoo, Mosaic Forests, Wildlife Preservation Canada, consultants, and others. There has also been a lot of local assistance from Helliwell Park neighbours in High Salal Ranch Strata, volunteers, Conservancy Hornby Island, the Hornby Island Natural History Centre, and Hornby Island Provincial Parks Committee.

The recovery project has benefited from funding generated by the BC Parks License Plate Program, the Environment Canada Habitat Stewardship Fund and the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation.

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