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Forestry Project will Map Likely Habitat of Endangered Butterfly

A grant from the UW-Madison Graduate School’s Technology Transfer Program will fund a project that uses computer mapping and statistical modeling to identify likely habitat of the endangered Karner blue butterfly–which could help Wisconsin land managers save thousands of dollars on field surveys required to protect the rare insect.

CALS professor of forest ecology and management David Mladenoff and his research program manager Ted Sickley intend to analyze landscape characteristics such as soil type, vegetation and last frost date to build a predictive model of the habitat of the Karner blue butterfly, an endangered species that is native to Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region. The butterfly, whose larvae feed only on wild lupine, is known to exist in the central and northwestern parts of the state.

Land managers, including utility companies, the timber industry and the Department of Natural Resources, are often required to assess the potential impact of their activities on the butterfly, says Sickley. However, habitat maps of the Karner blue based on historical data tend to be broad, regional estimates, meaning that managers often have to survey their entire project area-which can be a costly endeavor.

“We’re hoping to develop an even more accurate version of the map to help companies target their surveying activities,” says Sickley. “Our methods will provide fine-grained, detailed information about where the butterfly is likely to exist.”

Mladenoff says that he and Sickley are building on a similar wolf-modeling project completed several years ago, and that in the future the approach can be expanded to include other species.

“We know historically where the butterfly has occurred,” Mladenoff explains. “We can then look at other data layers–like soil type and vegetation–and see how they describe the locations we know the butterfly has lived in. We can then examine what other places in the state have the same combinations, and make a finer-detailed prediction of where the butterfly is most likely to be found.”

Mladenoff notes that the goal of the Technology Transfer Program is to fund UW-Madison research that will ultimately benefit industry in Wisconsin. “You often see projects funded in areas like engineering, business and biochemistry, but it hasn”t been as common to see the program applied to natural resources.”

Partners in the one-year project include the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, We Energies, the American Transmission Company, and Alliant Energy.