National Grid develops plan to protect Karner blue butterfly

National Grid would work to minimize harm to the endangered Karner blue butterfly on its rights-of-w

National Grid would work to minimize harm to the endangered Karner blue butterfly on its rights-of-way under a draft plan it has developed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the plan, National Grid would recognize that its right-of-way maintenance activities sometimes cause harm to the butterflies and their habitats, and would agree to take measures to help restore the species.

Just released for public comment Wednesday, the draft would establish a 50-year plan for conserving habitat for the butterfly, which is on both the federal and state lists of endangered species.

This is the first time a utility in the Northeast has been asked to develop such a plan as part of applying for an “incidental take” permit.

The federal Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to harm or kill federally threatened or endangered species. An “incidental take” permit recognizes that harm sometimes occurs from legal utility activities, and generally requires the utility to take mitigation measures.

“What the Fish and Wildlife Service permit does is protect their company to a degree,” said Meagan Racey, an FWS spokeswoman. “We work with them on measures that will minimize the harmful behaviors.”

Mike Sherman, National Grid’s principal environmental engineer for upstate New York, said the plan has been in development for at least six years, and National Grid considers it an obligation under the Endangered Species Act.

“The goal of the [habitat conservation plan] is to continue to provide protection of the butterfly habitat,” he said.

The plan will apply to 160 miles of electric or natural gas rights-of-way in Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Warren and Oneida counties where the Karner blue is known to exist.

The butterfly was first described more than a century ago in Karner, a community in what is today’s Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

The small butterfly, with a wingspan of about one inch, is noted for its sky-blue color.

It lives for only a few days in the summer, feeding exclusively on blue lupine, a plant species that grows only on open sites in sandy soil.

The Karner blue is found on sandy sites in the Capital Region — and nationally, there are colonies in New Hampshire and parts of Michigan and Wisconsin, with pockets in other states.

Generally, federal officials said, the species has been in decline due to habitat being lost to land development, and sites than once were open and supported blue lupine becoming overgrown.

The places where the Karner blue is found include utility rights-of-way, where regular cutting of large vegetation allows open places for blue lupine to grow.

Sherman said he believes National Grid’s vegetation management enhances Karner blue habitat, but he acknowledged that activities like driving utility trucks on the right-of-way could cause unintended damage.

Under the draft plan, Sherman said National Grid will agree not to mow rights-of-way in the June and July periods when the butterflies are active, and the utility may also plant lupine.

National Grid will contribute $50,000 toward what FWS officials said has been a successful program to raise Karner blues in New Hampshire laboratories and then release them in the Pine Bush.

It will donate another $50,000 to efforts by the Albany Pine Bush Commission to enhance the viability of the species in the Pine Bush. The commission will take over management of a National Grid corridor that runs through the Pine Bush.

“The idea is that the right-of-way will be managed as a seamless part of our preserve,” said Chris Hawver, executive director of the commission.

“The way [the plan] is proposed in the Pine Bush area is a good thing for us.”

There will also be an increased enforcement of trespassing laws on National Grid lands, since Sherman said illegal all-terrain-vehicle use is a significant environmental problem, especially in Queensbury.

Also in Queensbury, Sherman said five acres of National Grid-owned land near an electrical substation will be dedicated to Karner blue habitat.

While the concept of a utility endangered species habitat management plan is new to the Northeast, Racey said it’s been done in other parts of the country, particularly the Southeast.

Sherman said this is the first time National Grid has been involved in preparing such a plan, though the FWS and Wisconsin utilities have a statewide conservation plan for the Karner blue butterfly.

The plan may also be applied to the frosted elfin, another butterfly that shares the same habitat as the Karner blue. The frost elfin has New York state protection, but isn’t on the federal endangered species list.

Comments on the draft plan are being taken through Dec. 19. Interested persons can email [email protected] or write to Robyn Niver at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 3817 Luker Road, Cortland, N.Y. 13045.

Based on the draft plan and public comments, Fish and Wildlife will decide whether to issue the permit.

Categories: Schenectady County

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