“Bullets, Bombs and Butterflies”

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The Story

“Bullets, Bombs and Butterflies”
by T. DeLene Beeland
Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, June 2011

The Pitch

[Beeland notes: I found this story idea while writing a separate story with the main source, Haddad, on Carolina gopher frog monitoring he was doing on Fort Bragg. (That story is no longer up at the newspaper’s website, but you can find a copy on my blog: http://bit.ly/pbyJP9) I love writing about rare wildlife and attempts to manage, recover, or restore imperiled populations and species, so this butterfly story was right up my alley. It helped that the editor had seen a dozen or more wildlife and ecology-related stories I’d had published as a features in a double- page spread called the Science & Technology pages of N.C.’s two largest newspapers (Chalotte Observer and News & Observer of Raleigh.) To write the related gopher frog story, I interviewed Haddad for 90 minutes and shadowed one of his grad students around doing field work at Fort Bragg for 4 hours. With travel time, it was 6 hours total of field work. It took me about two hours to write this pitch and edit it, if memory serves. It’s hard to separte out the time I spent talking to Haddad about the butterflies versus the frogs, so I’m not really sure how much time to say I spent on the research. Possibly 30 minutes of our conversation was about the satyr. After the pitch was accepted, I spent a full day shadowing Haddad and his grad assistants in the woods, so the interview time to write the story was about 6 additional hours of field work.

There is so much sleuthing that goes into piecing together a cryptic species’ natural history. I was glad that this editor gave me extra space to include elements of the butterfly’s history, such as background on a private buttefly collector who first discovered this sub-species on Fort Bragg, described it taxonomically, and later over-collected it illegally and was convicted under the Lacey Act. It added a neat twist to the story and I’m glad he left it in. He also allowed me to include interesting background on how Haddad and his partner are experimenting with habitat engineering to bring back ephemeral wetlands into the woods of Fort Bragg. These were present historically when beavers lived in this area. It’s another interesting twist that shows how connected the complex of fauna is, and how ripples cascade through when one species is removed. Overall, I’m very happy with this piece and I’m grateful I was given the chance to tell this story in a long fashion.

In his email response to me to accept this pitch, the editor wrote: “Thanks for your query and follow-up. I think the idea is good. We have had others pitch us the same story, but your query is better and more complete. I have seen your work, and I think it would be a good fit for the magazine. Besides, a lot of other North Carolinians have love-hate relationships with beavers as well …”]

Hello Greg,

The world’s only population of St. Francis satyr butterflies lives ensconced within fire-dependent wetlands on Fort Bragg in N.C. These dark brown butterflies have a strong affinity for the base’s artillery impact zones, where soldiers train with small-arms weapons and explode incendiary devices. While bullets, bombs and butterflies may seem incompatible, NC State biology professor Nick Haddad says the impact zones are actually some of the best habitat in the whole state for these delicate invertebrates.

The St. Francis satyr butterfly population numbers in the thousands, which may sound like a lot but is really a tenuous hold on existence. All of their habitat, if strung together in one place, would only measure a few square city blocks. Haddad is contributing to an effort to captive breed the federally-endangered insects, with the goal of reintroducing captive-bred caterpillars to native habitat. “I’m pretty giddy about this, because we’re really on the cusp of a breakthrough with the St. Francis satyr,” Haddad said. “We’ve figured out the captive breeding and we’ve successfully propagated caterpillars, figured out how to raise them on sedge grasses and keep predators away.”

Haddad’s next steps include identifying suitable habitat for reintroduction, off and on base. Unfortunately, people working to recover this butterfly may need to engineer habitat to make the program fly. The butterflies prefer wet meadows that are maintained by mild but frequent fires. The fires prevent woody species from succeeding and taking over the grassy meadows. On Fort Bragg, explosion of incendiary devices within the artillery impact zones promote small fires. Without natural fires, the butterflies have become dependent upon military training activities, Haddad says.

Nobody knows what the caterpillar’s host plant is in the wild. But Haddad says he has figured out that they have a love-hate relationship with beavers. St. Francis satyr’s thrive when the pools of a beaver dam drain and knee-deep muck is left behind. They lay their eggs on the sedges and other grasses that quickly colonize the muck. But they must move on to new habitat when beavers create dams and flood the wet meadows they’re using. Much of Haddad’s work has been sleuthing to figure out what the St. Francis satyr’s habitat needs are. He’s pieced together enough to lay the scientific foundation for a reintroduction program.

I would like to propose this story to you as a feature for N.C. Wildlife magazine. The story of the St. Francis Satyr is part natural history of how native N.C. sandhill ecosystems used to work, part conservation biology and part hope for a better future. The allure of bombs and endangered butterflies will surely catch even the busiest reader’s eye. Other sources could include: Steven Hall (invertebrate zoologist with the DENR NC Natural Heritage Program), and Brian Ball (biologist with the Endangered Species Branch at Fort Bragg).

ART OPPORTUNITIES? Haddad’s field work on the St. Francis will begin in May. Photo opps include the captive-bred caterpillar propagation taking place on Fort Bragg, and perhaps landscape shots of the habitat they prefer if permission can be obtained from Fort Bragg.
WHY ME? I write freelance features for the Charlotte Observer’s new Sci-Tech pages, which also runs in the Raleigh News & Observer. I’ve written a story for them about rare gopher frogs that Haddad is monitoring, also at Fort Bragg. As part of this story research, I’ve all ready talked with him and interviewed him at length about the St. Francis satyr. (The gopher frog story will run in early to mid-April, it will superficially mention the St. Francis satyr.)

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this story proposal. DeLene

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