‘They have to let us know they’re there,’ Wisconsin DNR says
In the sand barrens of Wisconsin lives an endangered blue butterfly. Its range overlaps almost perfectly with the sand that’s become a lucrative part of a boom in natural gas drilling.
And to kill a Karner blue without a permit violates federal law.
But of the dozens of frac sand companies that have descended upon the area, just one, Unimin, has applied to the state Department of Natural Resources to be able to legally destroy Karner blues in its operations, according to David Lentz, who coordinates the agency’s Karner blue butterfly habitat conservation plan.
And only four companies have contacted the agency’s Bureau of Endangered Resources directly.
“They have to let us know they’re there,” Lentz said. “And they haven’t been.”
His concern is that companies’ due diligence may not be perfectly diligent.
“Are they in such a rush to get to the gold that they’re not going to consider their environmental or regulatory responsibilities, and take that risk?” Lentz asked.
The Karner blue is just one wrinkle in the state’s struggle with this fast-moving industry, which has homed in on Wisconsin for the quality of its sand. In the drilling process nicknamed “fracking,” sand, water and chemicals are blasted into wells, creating fissures in the rock and freeing hard-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas.
“The ‘sand boom’ took us by surprise,” noted state senior geologist Bruce Brown in an October presentation. “Many counties were overwhelmed by mining applications, and the scale of mining has presented problems we haven’t dealt with before.”
While the state Department of Transportation has been studying the effects of transporting all the sand on the state’s roads and rail lines, the DNR has devoted more staff to permits and enforcement. Two staffers are working just on frac sand air pollution permits, two more jobs have been devoted to enforcement, and since September, staffer Tom Woletz’s entire job has been coordinating frac sand permits.
As of mid-January, the DNR had counted about 60 mines, 32 plants either operating or being built, and 20 more proposed mines — more than double the 41 mines or plants the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism counted in mid-July. The agency conservatively estimated the state’s capacity at more than 12 million tons of sand a year.
Woletz said the agency can’t say exactly how many companies are out there and what their status is. They have no centralized industry organization, and they are “very competitive and very secretive” when buying land, he said.
“I don’t know that we’re trying to keep a handle on where they all are,” Woletz said. “Our main issue is making sure that they have the proper permits they need.”
The DNR on Tuesday issued a 43-page summary of the industry’s processes, their potential environmental impacts and applicable regulations.
Overall, Woletz said, the industry is “fairly well funded and they are receptive to doing what they need to do as far as permitting and compliance. But they want their permits at business speed,” — that is, “tomorrow.”
He, too, has learned a lot about Karners since he started this detail in September.
‘The people’s insect’
It’s no coincidence that wherever there’s frac sand, the Karner blue may be nearby. This quarter-size, gossamer-blue butterfly lives much of its life on wild lupine, whose blue-purple flowers are a common sight in Wisconsin’s sand barrens.
The Karner blue lays its eggs on lupine. Lupine is all the caterpillars will eat. In mid-April, they crawl up lupine shoots to eat the new leaves. By late May or early June, the adults hatch from their chrysalises to drink flower nectar, mate and lay eggs. The next generation has a mating flight in July.
Described in 1944 by the writer and butterfly expert Vladmir Nabokov, the Karner blue was once abundant from Maine to Minnesota. But its population diminished from tens of thousands to hundreds as its habitat disappeared.
The federal government declared the Karner blue an endangered species in 1992 because much of its habitat is gone — except in Wisconsin. Here, lupines are plentiful. A “high probability range” of area deemed at least 50 percent likely to have Karners covers 1.9 million acres and includes parts of 19 counties.
The Karner blue is considered a sentinel species for the dry sandy ecosystems in which it lives, and people see it as a symbol of the barrens.
It has a special relationship not only with the lupine but with certain ants, who milk the caterpillars as other ant species do aphids. The caterpillars secrete amino acids and nitrogen, and the ants in turn protect the caterpillars.
Conservation ecologist Cynthia Lane said she wasn’t totally comfortable with insects when she started studying Karners. She followed them for many months. When she was hot and sweaty, they’d hang on her finger, sipping moisture. She got attached to these creatures, with their fuzzy bodies and striped antennae.
“You realize that they’re just darn cute,” she said.
That’s not a rare reaction, according to Lentz. And it’s a common enough creature that people can spot it and say they’ve seen an endangered species. Black River Falls even holds an annual Karner Blue Butterfly Festival.
Lentz calls it “the people’s insect.”
A far-ranging butterfly
That a mine site is in the area deemed high-probability Karner blue range doesn’t necessarily mean it has butterflies. But it does mean the company should call DNR to ask about them.
Some frac sand mines are simply digging up the sandstone under old sand and gravel mines. Or they’re cranberry growers who are hoping to profit on frac sand before using the hole for a bog. Or maybe it’s a corn field where lupine doesn’t grow — but on the other hand, an access road to that field may have lots of lupine.
No lupine means no Karners and no worries. If there’s lupine, they need to survey for butterflies.
The high probability range also isn’t the only place butterflies could be. The Karners’ range “almost perfectly overlaps with the frac sand range in Wisconsin,” according to a January DNR memorandum.
“Frac sand mining companies need to be aware of the potential for Karners early in their planning process,” says the memorandum, because surveys for lupine and butterflies can only be done during a short time each year.
The Karner blue is just one of several endangered or threatened species that frac sand miners may encounter.
Flying under some companies’ radar?
But some mining companies may not know they could be endangering Karner blue habitat.
Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for the Tiller Corp., which is operating a mine in northwest Wisconsin on behalf of Minnesota-based International Energy Partners, said he hadn’t thought about the Karner blue until he got a reporter’s voicemail about it. Tiller began mining for frac sand last summer.
“I think in our case, because it was an existing sand and gravel mine, that’s probably why nothing was ever done about mentioning that to us or the property owner,” he said.
Caron said that in discussions about expanding the mine, he couldn’t recall butterflies ever being mentioned. But after calling his environmental consultant, Caron said that if Tiller wants to build into previously undisturbed areas, it will likely survey for lupine.
Calls to several other mines in the high-probability area were not returned.
It’s endangered, but don’t freak out
People say this a lot: The Karner blue butterfly could have been the spotted owl of Wisconsin.
With some exceptions, the Endangered Species Act forbids destroying endangered creatures unless one has a federal “incidental take” permit, which can be time-consuming or contentious.
Instead, after the Karner blue was listed as endangered, landowners sat down with the DNR for five years to hammer out a conservation plan.
The DNR has a federal permit to take butterflies and can extend that permit to its conservation “partners.” The 42 partners survey for butterflies, follow protocols during construction or maintenance (like not mowing during butterfly mating seasons), maintain habitat on their lands, and pay for the restoration of any habitat that’s destroyed.
“It’s really been our lifesaver in terms of being able to continue our operation,” said Gordon Mouw, certification and resource manager for NewPage Corp., an Ohio-based paper company that used to own thousands of acres in Wisconsin.
A fortunate twist: This isn’t a story about a finicky butterfly that only thrives in pristine landscapes. Sand barrens come and go as one plant community succeeds another; when tree saplings grow up, they shade out the lupine that Karners live on.
When a utility company’s maintenance crew mows a roadside, or loggers cut down trees, lupine can pop up out of the seed bank in the soil and provide new Karner blue habitat. This butterfly actually thrives on some kinds of disturbance.
Industry and conservationists agree the habitat conservation plan has succeeded.
“Back in the early ’90s, there was a lot of finger-pointing and apprehension and turf battles,” said Steve Richter, The Nature Conservancy’s director of conservation for agricultural landscapes. “But as you gain a sense of trust and friendship, you can get a working solution.”
Unlike forestry companies and utilities, sand mines pose the prospect of large-scale habitat destruction, removing the soil and everything in it. That would be new for the habitat conservation plan.
But Lentz said there’s room for it. “If we lose some habitat on frac sand, it’s not going to jeopardize the recovery of this species,” he said.
Unimin is working on a management plan that will combine habitat work on its property and paying DNR to restore habitat elsewhere, said Doug Losee, its environmental affairs manager.
Ecologist Lane cautioned that while the science of turning sand pits back into sand barrens has improved, it’s far from certain.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “It’s far more complicated.”
Sometimes plans to restore the land aren’t done right. Lane said she reviewed one plan for an underground mine near Maiden Rock, in western Wisconsin, that called for replanting the site with invasive species.
The quality of such plans “varies a lot with the industry,” Lane said. “People that have been working under the HCP (statewide habitat conservation plan) umbrella … are at the opposite extreme. They’re doing a really good job on their restoration planning and their overall protection.”
Cathy Carnes, a Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species coordinator in Wisconsin, said, “Time will tell how these frac sand mining companies are going to affect Karner blues.”
“If they are compliant with the laws and regulations and actually do their endangered resources reviews, we may be OK. If there’s companies that are skipping that step,” she said, “they could be slipping through the cracks.”