Inside the Colorado-based campaign to save insects from extinction
By Bruce Finley The Denver Post ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK »
At a high alpine lake here, researchers with clipboards and pens are conducting painstaking surveys that may be essential for saving butterflies and other insects from extinction.
“Someone has to stand up for the little guy,” Elise Willcox, 29, said on a recent morning as she hiked around the lake. She was scanning intently — “eyes attuned to anything flying around” — for the fluttering bright wings of wood nymphs, fritillaries and the Rocky Mountain Parnassian.
“If invertebrates disappear, that’s a big problem for us humans.”
These counts coordinated by the Colorado-based Butterfly Pavilion are part of widening international efforts to deploy a sort of collective radar — beyond what government wildlife agencies do — and monitor insect species declines. A growing body of scientific evidence shows bugs worldwide are decreasing in abundance and diversity, prompting warnings of an “insect apocalypse.”
Scientists estimate 40% of known species are declining and hypothesize that losses could trigger large-scale ecological collapse. Insects pollinate crops, recycle nutrients, aerate soil and provide the essential base protein in food chains.
Butterfly Pavilion officials aspire to avert a collapse. They’re expanding from their current zoo into a new $55 million, 81,000-square-foot facility north of Den-
“THE LITTLE THINGS THAT RUN THE NATURAL WORLD”
Speyeria hesperis) butterfly lands on flowers along Hollowell Trail on Tuesday in Rocky Mountain National Park.
ver — to be the world’s largest stand-alone invertebrate zoo and hub for research and habitat recovery. They’ve launched projects on three continents. And they’re teaming with developers to create a model 1,200-acre insect-friendly mini-city “for people to live surrounded by life” in Broomfield.
But the broader rescue mission hinges on mass mobilization of citizen-scientist volunteers for often-tedious monitoring — starting with butterflies. Beyond their beauty and role as pollinators, butterflies are super-sensitive — regarded by entomologists as ideal early-warning sentinels for dieoffs that ultimately affect larger animals. And even here at the protected Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, multiple intrusions threaten harm: roads bring gas-burning traffic and bright lights, hikers taking selfies chatter and trample lakeside host plants, asphalt parking lots replace forests, and anglers wade waist-deep through the water. It’s a microcosm of impacts that degrade natural habitat around the planet.
Willcox and her lepidopterist colleague Shiran Herschcovich, 25, blocked out tourism as they weaved through thrumming shrubs and grasses surrounding the lake. They saw dragonflies patrolling, precision predators, like tiny assault helicopters keeping mosquitoes in check.
Over a three-quarter-mile survey loop, Willcox spotted five butterflies. She recorded these on her clipboard sheet with notes about host plants — information she would upload into a national butterfly database. On previous surveys when more flowers were blooming, she counted up to 20 butterflies on this route.
“It can be frustrating when you don’t see butterflies. But even if we don’t see many, the data gives us a baseline,” she said. “Establishing that baseline is important so that we can track change. And, we may find indications of what habits humans might need to change to preserve wild spaces like this.”
The efforts to systematically monitor insects in Colorado began in 2013 with four volunteers on five routes. This Butterfly Pavilion-run Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network has grown with 63 volunteers covering 61 routes. Butterfly Pavilion officials aim for a tenfold expansion over five years to cover habitat in every county. They plan to broaden counting to include dragonflies and fireflies starting next summer.
Colorado data builds on surveys around the United States by more than 50 groups linked together as the North American Butterfly Monitoring Network, a consortium that follows similar research protocols. Elsewhere, more than 600 volunteers systematically monitor insects in Britain and efforts in other countries are beginning.
Waiting on universities and government agencies to track insect populations is seen as too slow in the face of what entomologists describe as accelerating extinctions. At Rocky Mountain National Park, there are no staff entomologists, and park officials have relied on outside researchers to identify more than 100 species. Butterfly populations fluctuate, “and the trend lines are fuzzy,” said Scott Esser, the park’s director of research learning.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials now list 94 insect species as endangered or threatened, up from 57 in 2008. Federal wildlife biologists concentrate on mammals and fish, although they’re also responsible for monitoring officially imperiled insects such as the Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, which survives on high mountain slopes in southern Colorado, and stream-dwelling stoneflies dependent on shrinking Rocky Mountain glaciers.
Meanwhile, United Nations officials warn of “unprecedented” accelerating extinctions worldwide and in 2019 released a study that found 1 million species, including insects, are likely to vanish. Bug surveys over the past decade in Europe documented a 50% decrease in butterfly populations since 1990, and researchers have estimated in studies that 45% of known insect species could go extinct within two decades — declines driven by pesticides, climate warming and habitat destruction as cities expand.
If insects vanish, the consequences for food production will be catastrophic, said Herschcovich, the manager of Butterfly Pavilion lepidopterists. “Invertebrate species are disappearing faster than we are discovering them,” she said.
“It is self-interest that we should be conserving all invertebrates. We cannot save the rhino or the polar bear or whales without the invertebrates first. They are the base for every ecological system we know, deeply connected to every other life form.”
But mobilizing people to conduct slow and tedious surveys appears difficult, Butterfly Pavilion officials say, aiming to use their expanded facility for recruitment.
Many visitors know insects primarily for their stings, sometimes venomous. Diseases that mosquitoes spread — including malaria, dengue, West Nile Virus and others — work against peaceful coexistence.
“All invertebrates are important. They recharge our soil. They decompose dead things. They filter the water we drink. They pollinate the food we eat. One-third of the food we eat is there thanks to pollinators,” said wildlife biologist Rich Reading, Butterfly Pavilion vice president of science and conservation, who also serves on the Colorado Wildlife Commission setting state policy toward other species. Reading worked previously for the Denver Zoo and for 26 years on wildlife habitat projects in Mongolia, where the government has honored his service.
“Insects are ‘the little things that run the natural world,’ the foundational species,” he said. “And they’re going down.”
A global rescue mission like this marks a shift for zoos, which traditionally focused on displaying pachyderms, monkeys, lions and tigers.
Back in 1995, Colorado’s Butterfly Pavilion opened northwest of Denver on an 11-acre site in Westminster — the first stand-alone nonprofit facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to house exotic insects. It grew from 7,200 square feet to 25,000 square feet and can handle up to 300 visitors per hour in a tropical vegetation area where people mix with brilliantcolored butterflies from around the planet.
Robust revenues, including sales from a gift shop, fund 60% of an annual budget of about $6.5 million, projected to reach $14.5 million at the new facility. Taxpayers in Colorado’s seven-county metro Denver Science and Cultural Facilities District contribute $1.1 million a year.
The new pavilion is scheduled to open in 2025, glassy with a towering five-story observation zone and underground cave, jungle canopy walkways and a greenhouse — just west of Interstate 25 in Broomfield within a 70-acre bug-friendly park. This complex will fit into the 1,200-acre minicity where McWhinney, a multibillion-dollar Colorado-based real estate company, is building toward a target of 9,200 homes — mostly townhomes and condos — along with solar-ready industrial buildings equipped with electric vehicle-charging stations.
Like the current Butterfly Pavilion, this new facility will be regulated. Federal agriculture officials prohibit breeding of non-native species — guarding against escapes that could hurt food crops.
Butterflies often live less than 50 days. And the regulations compel Butterfly Pavilion operators to rely on imports. Butterfly pupa (the chrysalis early life stage) purchased from “butterfly ranches” in Asia, Africa, Central America and South America arrive at Denver International Airport. Denver-based London Pupa Services houses these at U.S. Department of Agriculture-permitted warehouse facilities.
When these future butterflies reach Butterfly Pavilion backrooms each week, retired software developer Steve Chady, 66, a volunteer, removes them from cotton and foam packing and updates transaction documents. Then he glues each chrysalis to a wooden rod on a display board.
Gradually these hatch, and butterflies emerge, delighting visitors, especially children. Twice a day, staffers release new butterflies into the “Tropical Wings” display.
“The Butterfly Pavilion would not exist without a constant supply of butterflies,” said Chady, who also conducts butterfly surveys with his spouse on suburban open space.
“We’re looking for long-term trends in the numbers and kinds of butterflies. We need more people monitoring on the Eastern Plains, on the Western Slope and in the mountains,” he said.
“I feel almost obligated. …. I expect butterflies are probably going to continue to decline overall. But hopefully, we will turn it around before it gets dire. If the numbers get too low, we could hit a point of no return.”
Around the world, Butterfly Pavilion teams have launched projects designed to build partnerships and conserve habitat:
• Helping construct hanging beehive “fences” in Tanzania to promote coexistence of elephants and farmers. This project tries to give villages an economic stake in healthy habitat, discouraging poaching, with economic gains from pollination of crops and honey. Aggressive bees in Tanzania buzz around the eyes and trunks of elephants, driving them away from crop fields.
•Surveying and campaigning in Mongolia to gather data on threatened Parnassian butterflies, related to the Rocky Mountain Parnassian, and combat illegal poaching of endangered butterflies by collectors.
• Creating a butterfly farm in Sumatra, Indonesia. Funds from butterfly sales aid surrounding villages, and some are earmarked for efforts to save endangered rhinos on healthier habitat. Poaching to remove horns for sale in Chinese markets threatens to drive rhinos extinct.
•Guiding government leaders in Saudi Arabia in managing and improving protected natural areas suitable for insects and other wildlife.
In Colorado, the emerging “Baseline District” mini-city north of Denver is meant to serve as a model for sustainable urban living — an alternative to con-
crete-intensive development that squelches species diversity.
All plants and landscaping favor bees, dragonflies, beetles and other insects that, in turn, enable larger wildlife populations. The biological infrastructure for the development requires irrigating habitat and open space interspersed with buildings, and absorbing stormwater that can infiltrate soil instead of sluicing it away through drainage culverts.
“We want places for people to live surrounded by life,” said Amy Yarger, the Butterfly Pavilion’s horticulture director, who serves on a seven-member Design Review Committee that guides landscaping in the district. The committee directs the planting of native vegetation: aster and penstemon flowers, prairie grasses, rabbit brush and milkweed. Members recently nixed use of a daisy, compelling removal and replanting.
Initial surveys on what was a dusty, degraded site in 2019 found few pollinators could survive. Earlier this year, a follow-up survey found bumblebees, leaf-cutter bees and occasional butterflies, Yarger said.
“Everybody plays a role in saving invertebrates, and Butterfly Pavilion can lead the way. To reverse the declines we’re seeing, we’re going to have to have people think differently about what they do with their landscapes.”
McWhinney developers have envisioned a city of up to 23,000 residents, equal distances from Boulder and Denver, a 21st century version of the Tech Center on the south side of metro Denver.
“We are 100% supportive of the Butterfly Pavilion mission, both the educational component and the research component. They really want to ramp up the research, and we are excited about that,” McWhinney chief executive Ray Pittman said, adding that universities will play a role. “We see the potential to do national and global-level research, to have real impact on the challenges our communities and the world face.”
A model “pollinator district” where residents and wildlife coexist “would be transformational,” Pittman said, and would help ensure growth respects “the necessity to take care of our planet.”
In Europe and Australia, “there’s a community of like-minded developers,” he said, “and we tend to follow each other’s work.”
Eventually, Butterfly Pavilion officials plan to breed native insects such as dragonflies and fireflies to aid in recovery work.
And frontline volunteers say they’re finding that survey work can double as recreation, although protocols require walking slowly and precisely recording observations.
For Cindy Cain, 64, a fulltime nurse who takes care of children with diabetes at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz medical complex, a background in science has been helpful in identifying host plants for butterflies. She conducted repeated surveys this summer along nine routes in mountainous foothills, working for up to six hours on days off.