Struggling Species Again Find Home at Fort McCoy

Fort McCoy (U.S. Army photo)
Fort McCoy (U.S. Army photo)

It seems such an incongruous pairing: A military training site, with big guns and big equipment, providing sanctuary to something as fragile as a butterfly, as ill-equipped to flee as a turtle.

Yet Fort McCoy again appears to be host and haven to creatures struggling to survive elsewhere.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced earlier this month it will evaluate the status of four Midwestern animals -- the northern bog lemming, the wood turtle, the regal fritillary and the rusty-patched bumble bee -- to see if any warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

All four are native to Minnesota and only the lemming is not found in Wisconsin. At least two, the wood turtle and regal fritillary butterfly, already call Fort McCoy home.

The 60,000-acre, mostly wooded military installation in Monroe County has become known for harboring plants and animals thought in peril, from gray wolves to the golden-winged warbler to the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly.

"It's an incredible place for plants and animals," said Rich Staffen, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist. "It's really a great refuge for wildlife."

But it also makes for a challenge, trying to coordinate military operations around a growing list of plants and animals that require space as well.

In Tim Wilder's time as Fort McCoy endangered species biologist, he's had to figure out how smoke bombs might interfere with the state-threatened long-eared bat and when drop zones need to be left quiet so Blanding's turtles can lay eggs.

He's fitted wood and Blanding's turtles with telemetry for tracking through the fort's forests and hills, and marked Karner butterfly wings for identification. The contrast is striking: The turtles can live to 80 or 90 years in the wild, while the adult Karner butterflies survive only about a week.

The regal fritillary fares better than the Karner blue, lasting about three months. Though not recorded at the installation until 2010, the showy orange-and-black butterfly, almost as big as a monarch, seems to have gained a foothold at Fort McCoy.

Intensive counts in the first two years after they turned up logged 70 to 80 individuals, Wilder said. It might be one of the healthier populations of regal fritillary in Wisconsin, where it already is consider endangered, Staffen said.

"They seem to be pretty well distributed and established here," Wilder said.

The butterfly also has been sighted in Trempealeau, Jackson and Crawford counties in the region, according to the Wisconsin DNR.

The Blanding's turtle has done well enough that the state decided to delist it in 2013, though that move wasn't without controversy even though the species does seem to be on the upswing, Wilder said.

Wood turtles have been slower to recover, he said. While they've identified about 110 individual Blanding's turtles at the fort by filing notches in the shells and photographing the undershell's distinctive pattern, they've found perhaps only one-fifth that number of wood turtles over the years, Wilder said.

The reasons for each species' decline vary. The regal fritillary, which relies on violets as a host plant for its caterpillars, is thought to have suffered from the loss of prairie and grassland habitats. The wood turtle, too, has been squeezed by development carving into forests.

The rusty-patched bumble bee could be fighting some of the same factors that collapsed domestic honeybee colonies and have reduced a number of nectar-reliant pollinator species like the butterflies.

The bumble bee could be at Fort McCoy, Wilder said. Unfortunately, they and others haven't paid much attention yet to the bee species at the fort; bees in general have been "kind of overlooked" until recently, Staffen said. The DNR only has records of the rusty-patched in Green and Dane counties.

But that will change if the bee becomes listed, either in the state or federally, and Wilder knows the drill well. As with the past species that merited protection, he and his staff will have to assess its status at the fort and develop a plan for working around it if needed.

The fort does have "incidental take" permits for several species that allow some disturbance -- while they try to avoid harming any of the wildlife at the installation, some conflict is inevitable, Wilder said.

Yet he pointed out the land so many of these plants and animals have clung to might have been settled if not been set aside for the fort.

"More than likely, the only reason these species are here is it's been a military training facility for more than 100 years," Wilder said. "The habitat's here because of the training. It's kind of a trade-off."

The FWS will take information on all four species through Nov. 17, then begin analyzing whether any or all should be placed under further protection. The process usually takes about 12 months or longer, with any proposed candidates for listing published first in the Federal Register, said Georgia Parham, the FWS public affairs specialist who handles endangered species outreach in the Midwest Region.

Public petitions triggered consideration of all 25 species now being evaluated nationally, Parham said, and there will be more opportunities for public input before any final decision is made.

"It's a pretty meticulous process," Parham said. "But we're trying to get a good picture on whether or not ... adding to the list is warranted."

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