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Antioch's Endangered Butterfly

The Contra Costa Wallflower
The Contra Costa Wallflower
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It all began with an e mail communication from Steven Dilakian (Cohn & Wolfe PR). The email briefly described the plight of an endangered species right here in the Bay Area. Mr. Dilakian included an invitation to interview and observe the efforts of a few people who are dedicated to saving the species and to making a larger portion of our population aware of the possibility of watching a rare, local species become extinct within our lifetime unless something is done to preserve it. Steven Dilakian conveyed the name of a contact person who is trying to do just that. But the efforts to preserve are on the part of many more than just one person.

The enangered Lange's Metalmark Butterfly's life cycle is only on the Antioch dunes
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Laura Horton is a lawyer with the Wild Equity Institute. She is a recent Audubon Toyota Togethergreen fellow that is helping to make restoration efforts possible. Louis Terrazas is a Wildlife Refuge Specialist and biologist, and a resource manager with the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. Laura approached Louis with a plan to help preserve the endangered species in their own backyard, the Lange's Metalmark Butterfly (Apodemia mormo Langei). The butterfly is not that large. Certainly not on the scale of a Monarch Butterfly. The wingspan of an adult is only 1 to 1 1/2 inches. The rim of the wing has a thin white stripe around the outer edge, with dark, parallel stripes varying in thickness. A defined line separates the white rim from the large dark charcoal area. This feathers into a burnt orange color that then blends into a yellow nearest the body. These colors vary slightly in size and hue, but make the butterfly able to be identified distinctly. The wings are dotted overall with white spots. The body itself is a kind of a dark mahogany brown. The butterflies mate in August and September, the larvae hatch during the rainy season (Nov.-Feb.). The butterfly's flight pattern is rather stuttering and erratic. The fascinating things about this butterfly are several. They live exclusively on the Antioch Dunes. They mate just once a year. They lay their eggs only on, and the larvae and adult butterfly feed only on the Naked-stemmed Buckwheat (Eriogonum Nudum ssp, Auriculatum). Two other species on the Antioch Dunes are also endangered. They are the Antioch Dunes Evening Primrose (Oenothera Deltoides ssp Howellii), and the Contra Costa Wallflower (Erysimum Capitatum var. Augustatum). This imperative, the Naked-stemmed Buckwheat, is what the Lange's Metalmark Butterfly depends on for it's life cycle, and it is also one of the reasons why they are so confined to the Antioch dunes. At last count there were only 86 Lange's Metalmark Butterflies left. That is no mistake. Only 86 left.

The Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1980 with the intent of protecting the butterfly and other unusual, unique wildlife and plants exclusive to the dunes. This means restoring the dunes themselves, replanting the native plants, and removing any of the non-native invasive weeds and plants. The dunes were created over thousands of years from glacial sand being carried from the Sierra Nevada and deposited along a two mile stretch of the banks of the San Joaquin River, then slowly shaped by the wind and bay tides. Some of the dunes approached 120 feet in height. The isolation of the dunes resulted in the development of plants and insects that are found nowhere else in the world.

Butterflies have their own natural predators in the environment. Birds such as Blue Jays and Crows, lizards, frogs, mice, and other predatory insects to name a few. But when the habitat is threatened, endangerment and eventual extinction follows if nothing is done to interfere. Initially the dunes were dug up and shipped out for other purposes such as building material or cement making. Much of the sand was turned into bricks to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. This was bad enough to endanger the habitat of the butterfly. However, surrounding the Antioch Dunes are also a number of industrial power plants. This concentration of factories produce a "nitrogen deposition," an excess of nitrogen that is, in turn, leached into the surrounding soils. The Naked-stemmed Buckwheat, the Antioch Dunes Evening Primrose, and the Contra Costa Wallflower can't survive on the excessive nitrogen and die off, slowly starving and killing the Metalmark Butterfly in the process. The sand-mining and the industrial development fragmented the dune habitat leaving only a small portion of the original ecosystem. What is left today are two discontinuous parcels, the Stamm and Sadis Units, totaling 55 acres and containing dunes from 0 to 50 feet in height.

Laura Horton contacted Louis Terrazas saying she would go to the local high school, with an approach of education to the peril of a local species endangered in their own neighborhood and outreach to volunteers to help restore and preserve the species and its habitat. She would ask for student volunteers to help replant the two types of endangered flora, and the Naked-stemmed Buckwheat the Lange's Metalmark Butterfly needs to reproduce and thrive. With a grant from Toyota and the Audubon Society (the Audubon Toyota "Togethergreen Grant") she would be able to get plants, transport the high school volunteers to the dunes, and offer a stipend to 3 of the most interested students for the summer program of monitoring, counting, and following through the current cycle of the butterflies' life. Hopefully the end result will be an increase in their numbers. Louis Terrazas thought Laura Horton's idea was an excellent one, and coincidentally had plans to do some replanting anyway. Laura went to the Antioch High School to field her idea. In another coincidence, Antioch High School had just established an Environmental and Earth Sciences Studies Program at the beginning of the school year. The program is led by Rick Barton, and supported by several other teachers, one of whom is Italo Rossi, who teaches Ecology in the sophomore classes. Antioch also has a few other programs such as the Engineering Academy and the Leadership Academy. "It was all very serendipitous," said Laura, "the acquisition of the grant that is good for one year, the creation of the high school's Environmental Studies program, and the park service's plan to replant the three plants the butterflies depend on, all seemed to come together at the same time." In addition, the writer of this article happened to have business in Antioch on the same day of the planned restoration effort. Serendipitous indeed!

From Laura's Education and Outreach efforts, two groups of volunteers were formed. The first group of 30 students planted and weeded in January 2014. The second group of 26 students and 3 teachers met at the dunes refuge on Friday, February 21, 2014. Alyssa Serna, Lauren Thomas, Shayna Waldrop, and Madalynn Gondaza first heard about the plight of the Lange's Metalmark Butterfly from Laura Horton during her education and outreach program. These students decided to volunteer because they wanted to help preserve an endangered species that lived so close to home. None of the students had ever actually seen a living example, but they had seen one of the other examples of Antioch's dune life: a legless lizard. They were fascinated with the creature, but also a little "grossed out". They all took the Environmental Studies program to familiarize themselves with the possibilities for a future it might offer, but they weren't sure it was something they would continue to pursue as a career when they left high school. These and the other 52 students in the program would be the first graduating class in Environmental Studies at Antioch High School. They have another 2 years to go yet, but it will come faster than they realize.

A number of students are interested in participating in the follow-up program to the work they did on the 21st. This will entail monitoring the plantings, continuing to remove the invasive plants, keeping track of the eggs and larvae, and counting the butterflies that emerge and survive. The students that hope to do this work in the group of 26 are Alyssa Montanez, Asiah Hamilton, Danielle Marin, Eddie Espindola, Marian Kaard, Chocstina Oucero, Kaila Daniels, Amani Taylor, Wisdom Washington, along with the four students who offered their insights earlier. It will be difficult to choose only three from this list, and there will be even more interested students from the first group. The three chosen ones will be paid a stipend from the Audubon Toyota Togethergreen Grant Laura Holton secured in Sept. of 2013, so of course that is an incentive to be one of the 3 on the summer detail. It will, however, definitely be work. They will have to have transportation to and from the site. They won't be able to go on vacation with their families. They will be working hard under the characteristically hot summer Antioch sun. These are some of the mitigating factors that will narrow down the list. All of the students, though, were enthusiastic about the work they had accomplished, and excited about helping to restore the dunes.

There is a children's book entitled "Sardis and Stamm" written by wildlife biologist and environmental science writer Matthew Bettelheim and beautifully illustrated by Nicole M. Wong. It's a "children's book", but it describes the life and habitat of the Lange's Metalmark Butterfly that is interesting to adults as well as children, and presents a fun easy way to inform children, parents, and the public at large.

Because of the sensitivity of the habitats and endangered wildlife, the refuge is not open to unsupervised use by the public. However, refuge staff and local educators conduct on-site environmental education efforts with monthly guided tours and special events.

You can find out more about the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge at www.fws.gov/refuge/Antioch_Dunes

To find out more about Laura Horton's organization, go to www.wildequity.org

Finally, become involved yourself in the effort to save the Lange's Metalmark Butterfly and the Antioch Dunes ecosystem. Perhaps you could contact the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge and volunteer some of your time. Even if the only thing you do is to forward this article to everyone you know, it would be helping to spread the word.