Much of the remaining habitat of the endangered Karner blue butterfly overlaps with Wisconsin’s sandstone deposits. Mike Reese /
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‘They have to let us know they’re there,’ Wisconsin DNR says

Fracking and Karner blues

Interactive Map

View locations of sand deposits, frac sand mining operations and the Karner blue butterfly range. Click the image below to open a larger version.

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.”

The best sand for fracking is shown here in red in this slide from an October 2011 frac sand presentation by state senior geologist Bruce Brown.

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.

DOCUMENT: Possible environmental impacts of sand mining, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Jan. 31 white paper

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 lives much of its life on lupines, and as a caterpillar subsists entirely upon it. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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.

The Karner blue caterpillar has left its mark on this wild lupine leaf. The insect lives much of its life on lupines, and as a caterpillar subsists entirely upon it. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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.

Blue snowflakes: Nabokov and the butterfly

Vladimir Nabokov, a serious butterfly enthusiast as well as the writer of classic novels like “Lolita,” published the first scientific description of the Karner in 1944. He also described it in his novel “Pnin”:

“A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand,” he wrote, “their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin’s shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again.”

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.

Trucks move sand toward a processing plant in Valley Junction in the town of Byron in Monroe County in July 2011. The plant, operated by Hi-Crush Chambers, is one of dozens of sand operations popping up in Wisconsin in response to the demand for sand for hydraulic fracturing. Jason Smathers/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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.

The Karner blue butterfly is a sentinel species for the dry sandy ecosystems in which it lives. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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.

Conservation ecologist Cynthia Lane has studied Karner blue butterflies for many years. Courtesy of Cynthia Lane

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.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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5 replies on “Are frac sand miners failing to check for rare butterfly?”

  1. A great story, well-researched with super links. I particularly enjoyed the Nabokov description of the Karner blue. On the Glacial Deposits of Wisconsin map, isn’t that big brown area the site of ancient Lake Wisconsin? Isn’t our sand, like the Karner blue and the strange, silvery mosses and lichens I saw on a sand barrens up in Baraboo this winter, part of our natural heritage? Isn’t it like hauling off our weird quartzite outcroppings or our old bur oak trees? WHen that glacial sand is gone, it’s gone. And so are the plants and animals that have adapted to it since the end of the Ice Age. Thanks to this story, I will be following the ‘sand boom’ in our state with a critical eye.

  2. Great work in connecting the significant public investment in Karner blue habitat with the many impacts of the speedy proliferation of sand mines and processing facilities. There has been no cumulative impact study on public health effects or on habitat destruction.

    There is a proposed mining expansion in NW Chippewa County that would result in about 15 square miles of mining and processing. The area holds the headwaters of multiple cold water streams with significant public investment in fisheries habitat management and restoration. To my knowledge, there has been no meaningful review of the impact to the public trust on this relatively unregulated, landscape-scale industrial mining project.

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