Butterflies have captivated Cheryl Schultz ever since she was a “naïve and idealistic” graduate student at the University of Washington, looking for a way “to make real contributions to conservation.” The first professional conference she attended opened her eyes to the political realities. Hearing a discussion between The Nature Conservancy and academic ecologists, she realized that “the academic side had strong interests and The Nature Conservancy had strong needs, but there was a gap between them.”
Bridging that gap has become her life’s work. At the time, The Nature Conservancy was looking for a way to mitigate species declines by buying land for preserves. Schultz, now an associate professor of biological sciences at WSU Vancouver, wanted to use scientific research for conservation purposes: to construct solutions that would protect the environment while enabling the people who live in a place to use its resources. She decided to make the pros and cons of one potential solution—habitat corridors—her thesis project.
In The Nature Conservancy newsletter, she reached out to TNC stewardship ecologists who were thinking about corridors. “Within a couple of weeks, I started getting letters and calls from reserves across the country saying they were thinking about corridors—corridors for birds, corridors for butterflies, corridors for reptiles and more” Schultz said. By the time she had completed her thesis on butterfly corridors, she had learned that dispersed habitats—the “stepping stone” approach—would be more beneficial than a long, narrow flyway corridor. That was a solution that dispersed nature reserves could manage.
The project also introduced Schultz to her longtime collaborator, Elizabeth Crone, a National Science Foundation fellow at the time and now a professor at Tufts University. Over the last 25 years, they have collaborated on dozens of projects, studying many species of butterflies, including western monarchs, the Oregon silverspot and—their primary model species—Fender’s blue.
The science of land stewardship
Schultz and Crone seek to combine ecological theory with natural history to develop management techniques that can benefit butterfly populations, such as planting native species and controlled burning. The goal is to develop “flexible guidance” useful to conservation-minded property owners and agencies.
Their practical approach is exactly what many funders have been looking for. “A lot of inquiries have been coming in,” Schultz said. “That rarely happens, especially in this funding climate.”
This summer, Schultz and Crone’s study of western monarch butterflies made headlines across the country. In a paper for Biological Conservation, they reported that migratory monarchs in the American West have declined rapidly over the past 35 years, and could be extinct as we know them in another 35 years. “In the 1980s, 10 million monarchs spent the winter in coastal California,” Schultz said. “Today there are barely 300,000.” Although the reasons are not yet clear, loss and modification of butterfly habitat and widespread pesticide use are likely culprits, the researchers said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which funded the study, is currently considering whether to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Time to rebuild
The main focus of Schultz’s work, however, is not so much to document risks to vulnerable species but to reverse them. Her studies have generated much hopeful news. For example, several nature reserves adopting study recommendations have made great strides in restoring land for butterfly habitat, reducing weeds and enhancing nectar resources.
In one patch of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management in the Eugene, Ore., area, for example, where Schultz has been working since the 1990s with several agencies, the Fender’s blue population has grown from less than 100 to more than 9,000 in 2015. Using experimental fire, weed control and planting of nectar sources, “they took restoration to heart,” Schultz said. “As a result, they will call back and say we have other questions we want answers to, and that will lead to other projects and other questions. I’ve been fortunate to work with good people who really listen and care about using science to do conservation.”
New on the horizon is a five-year grant looking at the viability of various species on Department of Defense lands. The project is funded by SERDP—the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program—which is DoD’s environmental science and technology program. Schultz and Crone will use butterflies as a model system to examine how environmental changes affect endangered populations. The research will lead to three activities designed expressly to improve land stewardship: fact sheets, a decision support framework, and meetings with local managers to help make sure the framework addresses their needs.
“We argued that butterflies are a good system to answer their questions,” she said. “Because of their short life spans, we can get several generations in a five-year project.”
Fortunately, that idealistic young graduate student found her calling. “We really can come together, do the science, build the partnerships and take the time to rebuild the populations,” Schultz said. “With Fender’s blue, we’ve been doing the science for the last 25 years, and it’s working. For monarchs and other butterflies, I want to leave people with a sense of the possible: It’s not going to happen overnight, but we can do this. Working with Fender’s blue has been a very positive experience. The potential to help turn around other butterfly species keeps me going.”