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Drab butterfly is scientist’s gem

Oct. 5, 2003
The News & Observer
By Barbara Barrett, staff writer
© Copyright 2003 The News & Observer Publishing Company.

FORT BRAGG — Gnats buzzed the sweat on the faces of professor Nick Haddad and a pair of his students as they trod through a thicket of brush, their knee-high boots sinking in watery brown muck that harbored god-only-knows how many cottonmouths.

Bombs rumbled in the distance on the testing ranges that muggy morning in August. Dan Green, one of the students, carried a machete and was grumbling about it.

Suddenly, Daniel Kuefler , a graduate student, stopped short. Hey, hey look! he said, his voice rising. A wisp of brown fluttered out of the grasses, swooped high in the air and flew down past Green, who took a swing with a long-handled white net.

And missed.

The Saint Francis’ satyr, the tiny, brown butterfly Haddad and his two N.C. State University students sought, isn’t much to look at. Its few markings — deep brown eyespots and crooked orange lines — are only on the underside of its wings. It spends its days clinging on grass-like sedges, flying rarely.

But there are reasons to protect it, reasons that touch on mankind’s domination of nature and the ethics of protecting living creatures for their own sake. To let the tiny butterfly disappear for good would be to lose part of the web of biodiversity that, if pulled apart strand by strand over time, could one day just disintegrate .

The Saint Francis’ satyr is one of the United States’ rarest butterflies, one of 17 on the federal endangered species list. It is found nowhere else on Earth but the artillery zones of Fort Bragg .

Nick Haddad has become consumed with ensuring its survival.

The Saint Francis’ satyr flits through his dreams and dominates many of his conversations. His 3-year-old daughter’s room is decorated in butterflies, and his wife had to put the kibosh on his June field work, demanding he stay close to home for the impending birth of their son.

After two years studying the insect, Haddad, an assistant professor of zoology at N.C. State University, doesn’t have a single pinned specimen of the Saint Francis’ satyr in his lab. He can’t bear to kill a single one intentionally, even for research.

He is not actually a bug man at all, not an entomologist studying the Saint Francis’ satyr’s innards and anatomy. Instead, he is on a quest to understand its place in the habitat, how it moves through wildlife corridors from place to place, how it survives fire and floods.

“I think with endangered species, the ethics are the overriding point when it comes to conservation,” he said.

The Saint Francis’ satyrs, he said, “are not providing benefits to anyone. Ultimately, the only reason to protect them is an ethical one.”

A young-looking 35 , Haddad is still relatively new in his career, not yet tenured, still trying to make a name for himself . The slightest crinkles appear around his eyes whenever he grins, which is often, especially when he’s chatting with students on Fort Bragg, never in doubt that he’ll find the reclusive bug he’s after.

In the field, the lanky, 6-foot-3 professor wears T-shirts adorned with butterflies and puts ball caps atop thick, curly brown hair . On campus, he wears Birkenstocks.

He knows he’s not the only person interested in the Saint Francis’ satyr. Butterflies are the birds of the insect world. They inspire poetry and art and a passion that borders on obsession in the people who covet them.

The rarer they are, the more collectors want them.

Home on the ranges

The door slammed on the truck as Haddad and his students started their work that muggy August morning, pulling out nets and clipboards on a dusty road deep in the woods of Fort Bragg. Kuefler, a master’s student in ecology , and Green, a senior in botany , were finishing an argument about the radio. Kuefler wanted to hear punk music; Green had turned the dial to country.

“Oh god. That mindless stuff?” Haddad said, grinning. He’s a professor. He listens to National Public Radio.

They left their frozen lunches on the truck’s dashboard. As the morning progressed, the meals would thaw, baking in the sun. Kuefler is considering a dashboard cookbook for ecologists: The Field Guide to Lunch.

It was well into the second flight period of the Saint Francis’ satyr, the few weeks in summer when the insect is in its adult form.

The Saint Francis’ satyr is known to exist in six places just outside the bombing ranges, but today, the men were venturing into new sites — wetlands that looked like good habitat for the butterfly, but where the insects had not been found.

The sites are tucked among firebreaks that crisscross the drop zones of Fort Bragg, where C-130s fly overhead, dumping out dozens of paratroopers to float to the ground.

The wet habitat, newly disturbed by fire or flood, makes the artillery ranges perfect for the butterfly. The fire comes from bombs that routinely ignite conflagrations in the brush, burning growth along a network of streams. The floods come and go as beavers build, then abandon, their dams.

It’s odd, Haddad said. Fire and beaver dams can kill a population of butterflies by burning or drowning them. And yet the Saint Francis’ satyr needs these disturbances to exist.

Before the trio could head out, a few soldiers walked by in full camouflage, faces smudged with brown and green paint. One, talking intently to the others, lay on his belly just a few feet away and lifted a rifle to his shoulder.

Kuefler laughed. “I’d say they’re doing an exercise in how to sneak around in the woods.”

Haddad and his students had their own covert operation. One of the soldiers asked what the trio were doing with the nets.

Haddad didn’t miss a beat.

We’re studying plants, he said.

Restricted access

One day in early summer, Haddad sat down with the students he had hired to do research. He told them about the job, the working conditions and the butterfly itself.

One other thing, he said. You can’t tell anyone where you do this work.

Details of the satyr’s location are top secret. State and federal officials won’t talk about it. The military won’t allow visitors at sites where the butterfly is known to exist. Haddad has a permit to study the butterfly, but he must withhold details of its location in his scholarly presentations.

This violates a scientific code of ethics: that research should be open so that others can judge and duplicate it.

“I have to be secretive,” Haddad said. “I’m dealing with issues I don’t really want to deal with.”

He’s writing a research paper on the butterfly this fall, and he thinks it will be accepted by a major journal, but he wonders: Is this right?

State and federal officials think the secrecy not only right, but absolutely vital.

In the early 1990s, federal officials thought the butterfly, first identified in 1983 , was extinct. Then a state official got some federal money to look around Fort Bragg, and he found a population. The Saint Francis’ satyr was rushed onto the endangered species list in 1994 , mostly to thwart collectors.

“Butterfly collectors are basically like other collectors,” said Nora Murdock , a former wildlife biologist with the federal Fish and Wildlife agency who helped get the satyr on the list. “The rarer it is, the more difficult it is to get, the more they want it. It’s the same with stamp collectors and coin collectors. It’s just that this one’s alive.”

Fort Bragg has its own bureaucracy devoted to endangered species. The branch has responsibility for protecting three plants and two animals — the other one is the red-cockaded woodpecker. The office conducts research and keeps military training away from sensitive habitats.

If anything happens to the little satyr, the federal government will come down hard on Bragg. It happened before with the woodpecker, when a new firing range was ordered shut down for eight months .

Haddad estimates that there are 500 of the Saint Francis’ satyrs alive on the edges of the bombing zones, and perhaps an additional thousand or so inside the ranges. But that’s partly a guess, because he’s never been allowed inside.

The restricted access is not just to keep people from getting blown up. Army officials also are worried about collectors — people who would kill the butterfly to trade or sell to other collectors.

A perfect, pinned Saint Francis’ specimen, they say, could bring hundreds of dollars on the butterfly black market.

A butterfly sting

There’s some precedent for their fear. They remember Thomas William Kral .

Kral was on Fort Bragg 20 years ago, an off-duty soldier swinging a net and splashing through the same water that Haddad explores now. He knew a lot about butterflies, having caught his first at age 6. He had a collection of 25,000 specimens by the time he enlisted in the Army.

One day in 1983 , Kral bagged a drab butterfly that he didn’t recognize. It looked like something special, though. He caught five.

He went back the next day for more, and back the next year for still more. He sent a few specimens to butterfly curators at museums, where scientists dissected the genitalia and told him: It’s a new subspecies.

In 1989 , Kral co-wrote a scholarly paper describing the new subspecies in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society . In it, he named the butterfly Neonympha mitchellii francisci — Saint Francis’ satyr, after the patron saint of animals . He had taken about 50 of the new subspecies in all.

Then, Kral got caught up in the largest butterfly poaching ring ever discovered in the United States.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents raided his Tucson, Ariz., home in 1992 and found tens of thousands of butterfly specimens, all neatly pinned and organized row by colorful row in glass-topped drawers tucked inside cabinets.

The agents had been steered there because of a sting in California, where they found Kral’s letters at the home of another poaching suspect.

As the agents worked inside his house, Kral told them about his find in Fort Bragg and how he had named the Saint Francis’ satyr. He actually had several in his collection.

Agents left the Saint Francis’ satyrs behind because having them wasn’t illegal at the time. But they charged Kral with other offenses, mostly collecting on national parkland and in Mexico without the required permits. The case attracted national attention. Kral pleaded guilty in 1995 and got a $3,000 fine and three years’ probation .

Kral is still out looking for butterflies. His collection is up to 75,000. But he doesn’t think the Saint Francis’ satyr is worth much at all — “maybe $20.”

It’s small, he said, and it really isn’t very pretty.

Kral believes firmly that butterflies, even endangered butterflies, could never be hurt by collectors.

Collection is a harmless, educational hobby, he said. Habitat destruction is much more dangerous.

Soft steps, swishes

In the woods of Fort Bragg, Haddad knew that, in a way, he was destroying some habitat with every visit . He couldn’t help it.

He placed one heavy boot in front of another, butterfly net in hand and teetering like a circus performer, as he stepped along a path of 2-by-6 boards that he and the students had laid months ago .

They don’t want to hurt a single butterfly, not one tiny caterpillar or cluster of eggs. They stay on the lumber trail. But over the summer, the daily weight from their visits has mashed the boards deeper in the muck. It’s clear humans have been here.

They were at a different site now, a bumpy, five -minute drive from the last one. This was deeper in the woods, lusher , swampier, just a tad cooler. Sunlight streamed in through the trees, and a gentle breeze moved the grasses.

It’s tough to search for a brown insect no bigger than a 50-cent piece, a critter well able to blend into its surroundings.

To flush out the butterfly, the three spread out among the brush and briars, softly swishing their nets across the tops of the grasses, keen for some flicker of movement. They hadn’t ever seen the satyr here, but Haddad felt hopeful.

“This is my favorite area,” he said, pausing. Swishing. Nothing. “Someday we’re going to see a butterfly here.”

Still, there was much to worry about.

Haddad saw his first predatory event, as he called it, in June 2002. He watched a butterfly fly up from the vegetation and across a stream, and then a bright green dragonfly, an Eastern pondhawk , suddenly snagged the satyr in midair.

Stunned, Haddad dashed across the stream, caught the dragonfly and wrestled the satyr from its grip.

“I did not save it. It was dead,” he recalled.

He lay awake that night wondering whether he and the students were doing more harm than good. What if somehow their mere presence was drawing predators to the endangered satyr?

“So, for a while, we would capture pondhawks, put them in envelopes and release them when we left,” he said.

Mission: Rejuvenation

Part of Haddad’s job is to revive the butterfly’s population, help it grow so much that it can move off the endangered species list. So he and the students counted every butterfly they saw during its first flight period for two weeks in June , visiting every site every day.

They returned in August for a capture-and-release tracking project. They netted each butterfly, marked a number on its wing with a fine-point Sharpie pen and wrote the details on a clipboard.

Then they would come back the next day to see whether they could find No. 23 or No. 49 again.

For a species’ status to be improved from “endangered” to “threatened,” scientists must record a stable and growing population for at least 10 to 15 years. Haddad hopes that once they know enough about the Saint Francis’ satyr, they can capture a few females, watch them lay eggs and then raise the larvae.

This habitat, he said, would be a perfect place to release satyrs.

This is the best site yet, Green agreed, swishing his net a few yards away. “It’s like the holy grail. It’s what they’ve all been looking for.”

Just one female with 25 eggs, and a population could get started here, Haddad said.

“Next year, Nick, they’ll be colonized,” Green said. “They just have to get up here.”

Wasn’t Haddad ever tempted to just grab a pair from another site, then dump them here?

He nodded. “I am.”

Patience is rewarded

The sun was high by the time Kuefler, Green and Haddad reached their final site.

They picked their way through a wall of briars. Suddenly, Kuefler stopped.

“Oh wait, wait, wait,” he said, his voice rising. He raised his net. “I’m gonna catch it. I’m gonna — oh, crap.”

Green, behind him: “I see it!”

Haddad, caught around a bend, strained for a peek. “You see it?”

Green swung his net. Missed.

“Oh, come on! Geez.” Another swing, and the butterfly was inside, fluttering feebly.

Let’s take a look, Kuefler said. “Oh, this is very exciting.”

Green gingerly pulled the butterfly out with a pair of forceps.

“Dude! It’s a big female!” Kuefler cried. “Neonympha! “

Green set the insect on a leaf. The butterfly stood still, its wings folded, a crooked, orange line etched above a string of deep brown eyespots. The students leaned in close.

Haddad splooshed quietly over and squatted in the water, eye to eye with the insect.

He paused. “I’m pretty sure it’s a Saint Francis.”

Kuefler and Green high-fived. “Sweet!”

Haddad sighed. “Oh, man.”

They couldn’t keep it. And they wouldn’t mark it with a pen, fearful of hurting the site’s only butterfly. So they left it on the leaf and waded away.

For another half-hour, they wandered, swooping their nets and watching, waiting. Nothing.

It was time to go. Haddad emerged from the wetlands like an apparition, raising the machete high in triumph.

“Hey,” he said, grinning, bragging. “How many NPR listeners do you know who carry a machete?”

Still smiling, he strode over to the tree where he’d left his net, plucked up the pole and leaned it over his shoulder like a soldier’s rifle. The net bobbed as he loped toward the truck, following the tracks of his students.

It would be the only Saint Francis’ satyr they saw all day. The flight period would end soon.

No matter. Haddad felt sure that this one insect was a sign. Next June, he said, there will be more here.

He just knows it.

Staff writer Barbara Barrett can be reached at 829-4870.