When Roland Levesque applied for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), he never dreamed it would lead him to serve as protector of a very rare species.
It began when Levesque planned on turning his hay fields into rotational grazing land for cattle, and controlling the invasives in his forest land.
He contacted the NRCS Office in Torrington, and spoke with District Conservationist Kathy Johnson. As part of the planning process, Johnson did some research to find out if the site was located near any critical habitat areas mapped by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). After finding that the land was indeed in a critical area, Johnson contacted the staff at DEP’s Natural Diversity Database to let them know and to get their advice about the project.
Johnson was contacted by DEP Wildlife Biologist Julie Victoria who informed her that this area of the Housatonic River Valley contains one of two viable populations of one of the rarest butterflies in all of New England – the Northern Metalmark Butterfly (Calephelis borealis).
The Northern Metalmark is associated with the Round-leaved ragwort plant (Scencio obovatus), on which the caterpillar (larvae) feeds. Victoria wrote, “Any activities that affect this plant will affect the butterfly.” She advised avoiding spraying herbicides, controlling invasives, and keeping a nearby area of early successional stage vegetation to ensure nectar sources remained available to the butterfly. Victoria also suggested the next step should be to have DEP Wildlife Biologist Laura Saucier make a visit.
Saucier walked the property and located five patches of Round-leaved ragwort. The plants were growing in an area that was not slated for disturbance by the pasture project, but which was at risk due to invasive plants. Saucier recommended removing the Japanese barberry and girdling some trees to let in more light. Levesque agreed and offered to do the necessary work himself.
According to Saucier, “Across much of its range (Connecticut southwest to Missouri), the Northern Metalmark appears to be declining. Presently,” she said, “only four tiny colonies are known in Connecticut – all situated in the Housatonic River Valley. All of these colonies are vulnerable to changes in their habitat. Forest succession, habitat degradation due to encroachment of invasive species such as autumn olive and Japanese barberry, and the over-browsing of herbaceous plants in the forest understory by deer are all contributing factors to the decline of this species. Selective cutting of trees is being used in Connecticut to open up additional habitat in densely forested areas adjacent to colonies. The hope is that by opening up the overstory, removal of invasive species and planting additional wildflowers will help keep this beautiful butterfly in Connecticut.”
At present, Levesque has installed the first portion of his planned brush control, fencing, pipeline, and water troughs for the grazing system. And, he is so enthused about the butterfly habitat that he has again applied for EQIP funding in the hopes of getting help with planting wildflowers the butterflies can use for nectar. (According to Saucier, the adults nectar on Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus).
Levesque would like to thank NRCS and DEP – especially Kathy Johnson and Laura Saucier – for their assistance and advice in re-establishing the farm and improving the habitat for the northern metalmark butterfly. He looks forward to working with both agencies again in the future.