Trail runners’ lament: Beauty of declining butterflies will be missed

Butterflies like this monarch, photographed on a goldenrod plant at Millstone Watershed Reserve in Pennington, N.J., are in danger due to a variety of man-made threats.

It’s a sunny, warm summer morning and your trail run through the woods suddenly opens into a vast field of wildflowers.

The beauty is magnificent. Birds, blossoms and. . .wait: Where are the butterflies?

Oh, there’s the occasional yellow sulfur and common white cabbage species floating around the thistle.

But as for the ones we’ve grown to really appreciate over the years – the monarch, the red admiral, the yellow swallowtail, the meadow fritillary?

Nowhere to be found.

That’s because these precious insects, like so many of our wildlife on this rapidly ever-changing planet, are threatened down to their very existence.

While off-road runners might lament the loss of the butterfly’s pleasing color and flight, the concern goes far beyond that.

Like their distant cousins, the honey bees, butterflies are great pollinators for foliage, most notably flowers. And they provide a food source for creatures such as the aforementioned birds.

The decline of butterflies both here in North America and around the world is devastating in a breath-taking kind of way.

Monarchs, aptly named for their strength as “kings’’ of the winged bugs, fly up to 2,000 miles to Mexico each year as part of their migratory DNA.

But loss of habitat (much of it due to our building and farming which kills off milkweed, the monarch’s food source), along with pesticides/herbicides, climate change and invasive species from the insect world, have conspired to put a serious dent in the monarch population.

Once estimated to have as many as one billion monarchs on this continent as recently as the late 20th century, butterfly experts say that number may have plummeted to below 50 million.

It’s a shame because butterflies have always been a symbol of freedom and whimsical movement.

Fairfax Hutter, a naturalist/conservationist/hiker who participates in an annual census count in New Jersey for the North American Butterfly Association, says the numbers from this year’s findings were “way down.’’

Hutter, one of the fastest adult female runners in the Garden State during her competitive racing days, is discouraged by what the late June survey uncovered.

“We were like really bummed,’’ she said. “This was universally expressed amongst other groups who went out, people on social media on nature pages – for some reason, it was a really bad year.’’

Hutter has been helping with the NABA census for the better part of a decade and each year seems to be part of a downward trend.

“There’s an overall decline,’’ she said. “One of the things that was so stunning about this summer was the habitat looked really good because they were doing a restoration (Mercer Meadows in Pennington, N.J.)

“The milkwood was there but the butterflies weren’t. We were getting reports from Pennsylvania, North Jersey: ’Where are the butterflies?’ We were all concerned.’’

Back in the day, butterfly bushes planted in backyard gardens drew all sorts of butterflies – painted ladies, mourning cloaks, red-spotted purples, skippers, anglewings and so forth.

Over the years, over-development of open spaces has been a big threat to butterflies with herbicides such as the infamous Roundup a close second.

The news keeps getting worse: Recently in Florida, researchers announced that two species of butterflies have been driven to total extinction.

According to an article on the Britannica website, butterflies are “emblematic and they can serve as flagship species for a world at risk of losing much of its biodiversity.’’

The article goes on to say: “These scaly-winged insects, however, not only are for the pleasures of the scientific or creative mind but are also an important part of ecosystems throughout the world. They and their moth relatives continue to be important as pollinators for flowers and, in their larval stage, as food sources for birds and as herbivores that keep plant populations in balance.’’

Hutter hopes things can be turned around but like with preserving any form of wildlife, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Lesser known threats, such as deer over-population (which chew up a lot of butterfly plant food sources), are lurking in the weeds, so to speak.

It’s a somewhat bleak picture but it can be brightened if changes are made.

“One of the joys of hiking and trail running is the landscape around you,’’ Hutter said. “When the landscape is barren or less rich, the whole experience is just not the same.’’


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About Wayne Fish 2451 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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