A Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha taylori) from our recovery program in British Columbia. Photo: M. Gardiner

As the resident butterfly expert among my family and friends, periodically I get hit with the question “why conserve butterflies?” – and this has caught me off guard before. Generally, I find that most people automatically support conservation of one kind or another, so while I get questions about technical aspects of my work, the justification is not often called into question.

For some species, this question is a little easier to explain, Most people see the utility of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone or the long extirpated European beaver into the UK. This might be because they are large mammals, which makes them charismatic mascots for conservation. Or maybe the positive impact of reintroducing these species is more pronounced to humans. Wolves for example control the populations of herbivores, keeping grazing in check, allowing vegetation communities to prosper. Beavers, as we know, dam waterways and in so doing create ponds and wetland habitat. So why do we want to conserve butterflies, after all they don’t create dams or control herbivore populations? There are a few answers to this question.

For many people, monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are the mascots of butterfly conservation. Photo: M. Gardiner

Reason #1 They are signs of a healthy environment

Butterflies are what we call “bioindicators”; they indicate the overall health of their habitat. If we have a diverse array of native plants, the butterflies that rely on them will be present. In this sense, butterflies are truly the canary in the coal mine. This means that one of the ways we can help butterflies is by protecting ecosystems!

Butterflies such as the red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis) help ecosystems by pollinating native flowers such as those pictured above. Photo: M. Gardiner

Reason #2 They help maintain ecosystems

This is somewhat tied to the last point, but native butterflies pollinate native plants. Oftentimes rare ecosystems with unique plant communities require specialist pollinators such as butterflies that are distinctly suited to certain plants. Without these specialists, many native plants are unable to reproduce and ecosystem biodiversity is threatened.

Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis) taking a much needed rest. Photo: M. Gardiner

Reason #3 They are underrepresented in conservation efforts

When you think of conservation projects what do you think of? Pandas? Whales? European beavers? For most people, insects and other invertebrates are not the first thing they think of when they think about conservation. Invertebrates make up at least 77% of the species (possibly more) on the planet, yet this 2005 study suggested that invertebrates make up only 9% of all reintroduction projects. A more recent study states that we know the conservation status of only 31% of all invertebrates. Through our native pollinator initiatives, such as the Taylor’s checkerspot and the mottled duskywing projects, we are doing our part to turn this figure around and change the face of conservation.

Believe it or not, in terms of conservation, butterflies are often overlooked. It’s hard to imagine overlooking the Lorquin’s admiral (Limenitis lorquini) pictured above. Photo: M. Gardiner

Reason #4 It is our obligation

Above all else, it is our obligation as beings on this planet to slow down the current rate of biodiversity loss. Humans represent the number one threat to most at-risk species. We are directly or indirectly tied to their decline in one way or another. So from a moral standpoint, it is our duty to do our best to lend a hand to the beautiful creatures that we share our home with.

A mottled duskywing butterfly (Erynnis martialis) representative from our reintroduction project. Photo: M. Gardiner

Mitch Gardiner

Lead Conservation Recovery Technician

Mitch is working with WPC’s recovery team in the Fraser Valley, BC. He completed his BSc at Trent University, majoring in Conservation Biology. Mitch has worked with WPC’s Mottled Duskywing Recovery Project, coming to this from tallgrass prairie stewardship. Mitch enjoys cultivating a deep understanding of species and ecosystems that comes with conservation. What he appreciates most is fostering a passion and respect for nature in others.