British Columbia

Rare 'eye-catching' butterfly making a comeback on Hornby Island

A rare black and orange butterfly once common on Hornby Island could soon be making a comeback if a long-running breeding program is successful.

Years-long breeding program to reintroduce Taylor's Checkerspot butterfly to Helliwell Provincial Park

The Taylor's Checkerspot butterfly was once common along the eastern part of Vancouver Island, but is now only found in two places: Denman Island and a private property near Campbell River. (B.C. Ministry of the Environment)

A rare black and orange butterfly once common on Hornby Island could soon be making a comeback if a long-running breeding program is successful.

The Taylor's Checkerspot butterfly was once seen throughout wetlands and meadows in eastern Vancouver Island, with 20 known habitats between Victoria and Courtenay.

That changed once the population in the Greater Victoria area began to grow. Due to forestry, farming and building, the butterflies vanished. Now, they live in only two places in Canada: Denman Island and a private property just outside of Campbell River.

That means if you spot one, you're incredibly lucky.

"It's quite eye-catching," said Jennifer Heron, an invertebrate conservation specialist with the province's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

"Its wings sort of look like a stained glass window."

The butterflies are pollinators and an important part of the ecosystem, Heron told CBC's On The Coast.

Work to boost the butterfly population started in 2006, after one was spotted on Denman Island. Up until that point, researchers thought the butterfly didn't exist in Canada anymore, Heron said. 

That discovery spurred researchers and local residents to create a recovery team to boost the butterfly's numbers. Naturalist Peter Karsten learned how to breed the butterfly in captivity in partnership with the Greater Vancouver Zoo.

Then in 2015, the recovery team began restoring land at Helliwell Provincial Park on Hornby Island.

About 900 butterfly larvae hatched this year and will be moved to Hornby Island this spring. (B.C. Ministry of the Environment)

"Helliwell Provincial Park was the last known place where the butterflies occurred other than the new Denman Island population," Heron said. 

"So the habitat is available. We just needed to restore and remove some of those threats."

Creating a third population — aside from those already living on Denman Island and Campbell River — increases the likelihood that the species will survive, Heron explained. 

About 900 larvae hatched this year and will be moved to the island this spring, she said. 

But the butterflies won't immediately be fluttering into the sky. Once the larvae are transferred to host plants, they'll feed and grow for about 10 days. Then they'll turn into pupa before emerging as an adult butterfly.

"Hopefully by late April to early May they'll pupate into butterflies. And that's the timing of when it would have naturally occurred in Helliwell Provincial Park," Heron said.

Anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of their orange and black wings should get their chance later this spring. 

"The best time would be from early May till late May," Heron said. 

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