The tiny blue butterfly, one of the smallest of its kind, flutters amid shrubs in areas surrounded by pine trees in Klamath County. It’s not been found anywhere else, and there are only a few thousand on the planet.
Wildlife advocates want Leona’s Little Blue Butterfly declared endangered. But federal authorities have yet to act.
So this week the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Oregon Wild filed a complaint against the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the butterfly is in peril of becoming extinct.
“We believe the survival of this rare species hinges on its protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director at Xerces Society.
Leona’s Little Blue Butterfly has only been found on six square miles in the Antelope Desert east of Crater Lake. It nibbles on spurry buckwheat, shrubs that are being swarmed by sprouting conifers. The butterfly is also threatened by wildfires, disease and extreme weather, the suit says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The complaint comes three years after the Xerces Society petitioned the Wildlife Service, in May 2010, to list Leona’s Little Blue Butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. Four months later, the agency dismissed the petition. But in August 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service changed its mind, saying it would review the butterfly’s plight.
Under the law, federal authorities must make a determination within 12 months of a petition.
“It’s been three years and they haven’t made a decision,” Jepsen said. She said the agency indicated it would not consider the petition until 2017.
The problem rests with resources, said Matt Baun, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife. “We are doing the best we can to work through the evaluation.”
The creature was discovered in 1995 by Harold Rice, the late Oregon butterfly collector, and his wife, Leona Rice. Four years later, two other scientists confirmed that it was indeed a distinct species. Part of the Philotiella genus, Leona’s Little Blue Butterfly is less than three-quarters of an inch long and one of the smallest blue butterflies, Jepsen said.
“Every species has intrinsic value,” Jepsen said. “We don’t know what role this species plays. It’s very likely a food source for small animals.”
Listing under the Endangered Species Act would bring investigation and monitoring.
“It’s really very effective,” Jepsen said of a listing. “Biologists will develop a recovery plan. They’ll monitor to see if populations are decreasing.”