When Erica McClaren looks at the coastal landscape of Helliwell Provincial Park, she feels hopeful a rare species of butterfly will return to its former home.
As a conservation specialist for B.C. Parks, McClaren is part of a large team of scientists and community members who began restoring the park’s coastal bluff meadows in spring 2015. The goal is to create an ecological community suitable for the release of hundreds of captive Taylor’s checkerspot larvae next spring. It was in the early 1990’s that the small orange and black butterfly was last seen in the park.
“It’s really exciting to help the recovery of a species,” McClaren said. “We’ve been spending five years getting the habitat ready for butterflies to come back and I think it’s time to throw them out there.”
The recovery team removed conifers and invasive plants, and put in plants that provide food for larvae and nectar for adult butterflies.
“You don’t want to put them back into an area where they are destined for failure. Hopefully this will give another location where Taylor’s checkerspot can exist, so it buffers their population from possibly being extirpated from B.C.”
Historically, the Taylor’s checkerspot was found in several areas of southern Vancouver Island. Now the only place they live in Canada is on private land in the Courtenay area and on Denman Island where 10 hectares in a provincial park are a dedicated butterfly reserve.
Researchers believe habitat loss from urban development and an overabundant deer population could be the reason behind the butterfly’s disappearance on southern Vancouver Island. In Helliwell Provincial Park, the coastal meadows remained in an open state, likely due to First Nations cultural fires, along with grazing cattle and sheep. However, once those activities stopped, conifers began to grow, soaking up water from host plants and shading out habitat for butterfly larvae.
The butterflies need open meadows and plants in wet areas for the caterpillars to feed, which materialized on Denman Island because of logging. Some of the logged areas were turned into park and conservation lands that now provide habitat for a small population of Taylor’s checkerspot. Their numbers, however, are rapidly declining. Keeping the area free from trees and invasive plants is an ongoing challenge.
Erika Bland, land manager of the Denman Conservancy Association, is among the many individuals who have dedicated countless hours to Taylor’s checkerspot recovery. She’s hopeful the species will recover, but noted private landowners can play a huge role.
“Many people have patches of suitable checkerspot habitat on the lands where they live,” Bland said. “I think engaging private landowners, in combination with maintaining the small populations in existing known refuge areas on public park and conservation lands, offers the most hopeful scenario.”
Many people on Denman Island have been supportive of the recovery work, she added.
“It is challenging to do meaningful conservation work that is so focused on such a small creature who occupies such a small area,” Bland said. “I like to think that folks will continue to support the recovery efforts here and in the region, and create and take care of all the special places where Taylor’s checkerspot can live and thrive.”