In Iowa: Counting butterflies important step in reclaiming habitat

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I always wanted to add “scientist” to my LinkedIn profile.

But as one who “measures” rainfall in an ungraduated 5-gallon pail, and as one who interprets Ross Perot’s famous dictum as “estimate once and cut twice,” that seemed unlikely.

But now, thanks to the generous standards of the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network, I henceforth will be engaged as a citizen scientist counting butterflies in Linn County.

This suits me well as I like to count and am good at it.

If you want to know how many geese were in that flock that just passed overhead, or if you’re sitting behind me at a flashing railroad crossing sign wondering exactly how many rail cars detained us, I could probably tell you.

I and 50 other prospective butterfly counters participated in a three-hour training session on March 4 that taught us the purpose and protocols of the survey and how to identify the 25 most common Iowa butterfly species.

Each of us will select a route — through varied habitat ranging from prairie and wetland to woodland and savanna — requiring from 30 to 120 minutes to cover at a “mall walking” pace.

We will conduct our surveys a minimum of nine times between June 1 and Sept. 30, making our observations between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on fair weather days, recording all the butterflies we can see at a distance of no greater than 18 feet.

The protocols ensure consistency among all sites and citizen scientists, yielding “observations per unit of time,” said one of the instructors, Nathan Brockman, curator of the butterfly wing at Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens.

The Iowa Butterfly Survey Network has been collecting data for 10 years, with volunteers counting butterflies at 34 sites last year, said Anita Westphal, co-coordinator of the survey network.

In its 10 years, the network has collected data from just two Linn County sites but that is about to change dramatically. Many if not most of the recent trainees will soon select a Linn County site and start counting butterflies in June.

“There is a good chance Linn County will be the most surveyed area in the state,” Brockman said.

Of the 122 butterfly species believed to live in Iowa, more than one-fourth are listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern, primarily because of lost habitat, Brockman said.

The data we collect, while useful in assessing statewide population trends, will be especially valuable in documenting the effectiveness of several local efforts to increase habitat for butterflies, bees and other pollinator insect species.

They include the “Thousand Acre Plan,” in which the cities of Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha, along with Linn County and the Monarch Research Project, will convert 1,000 acres of unproductive property — mostly lawn that has to be regularly maintained — to pollinator habitat.

Many more acres of pollinator habitat will be established through a joint initiative of the Monarch Research Project, Linn County Conservation, Trees Forever and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

Those groups will host an April 29 Linn Landowners Forum at which experts will provide advice on habitat creation, restoration or permanent protection.

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