RENO, Nev. – A survey showing higher-than-expected numbers of a unique Nevada butterfly has revived a debate over whether it needs protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Some experts now conclude the listing of the Sand Mountain blue butterfly may not be necessary.
But conservationists say the listing is the only way to save the butterfly from extinction. It's only found at Sand Mountain near Fallon, whose huge sand dunes are popular among off-road vehicle enthusiasts.
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to conduct a year-long review of whether the butterfly should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Officials said the step was justified because off-road vehicles have destroyed much of the dune vegetation, Kearney buckwheat, that the insect needs to survive.
Now, UNR researchers said a first-of-its-kind count found a thick concentration of butterflies in areas where the vegetation still survives.
"Our guess is that there's on the order of a half-million or more butterflies at Sand Mountain," UNR biologist Dennis Murphy told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
"The most heartening finding is that the butterfly appears to inhabit all of the dune areas that support its host plant, and there's many tens of thousands of plants still remaining," he said, adding the count could mean the butterfly's listing won't be necessary.
Bob Williams, field supervisor of the Nevada office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he's "pretty confident" the listing won't be necessary.
But Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he thinks the listing is essential to the butterfly's survival.
"The situation at Sand Mountain is so dire not even this administration could deny there's a real threat of extinction of the San Mountain blue butterfly," Patterson said.
Others insist a conservation plan being crafted by federal and local officials, environmentalists and off-road vehicle users would protect the butterfly while allowing continued vehicle recreation at Sand Mountain.
The plan would restrict off-road vehicles to designated routes.
"We believe we can make it work," said Don Hicks, field manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Carson City district. "I think we can preserve that habitat, avoid listing and still have responsible recreation."
Richard Hilton of the recreation group Friends of Sand Mountain said listing of the butterfly can be avoided through the conservation plan.
"That's why we got involved. We don't want to see it listed," he said.
But Patterson said he thinks the conservation plan won't go far enough.
"The only thing that really will do it are the laws of our country, which in this case is the Endangered Species Act," he said. "The Endangered Species Act works."