Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Big partnerships help even the smallest creatures

A unique union formed between a utility company, a land preserve and two government agencies has created an impressive opportunity for conservation in New York.

National Grid, an electric and gas conglomerate, owns and manages rights-of-way in the upstate Capital District that run through the Albany Pine Bush Preserve and contain patches of wild blue lupine and other wildflowers—a coveted habitat for some uncommon wildlife. While National Grid serves millions of people in New York, as of October, they started serving another, much smaller crowd. 

The company’s rights-of-way have become a favorite spot for two rare butterflies
the Karner blue and frosted elfin. The tiny, bright Karner blue and the brown frosted elfin butterflies thrive only in these open areas with the wild lupine plant, which is their primary food as caterpillars. 

Karner blue butterfly. Credit: J. and K. Hollingsworth.

Both butterflies are protected under law—the Karner blue under the federal Endangered Species Act and the frosted elfin under New York’s Endangered Species Act. Both acts, through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have provided an opportunity for National Grid and the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission to partner in a habitat management project.


The Endangered Species Act provides for collaborative partnerships in protecting endangered species and their homes. One way is with companies and others through habitat conservation plans, a requirement for an incidental take permit. 

An incidental take permit allows the continuance of activities, such as clearing rights-of-ways, that risk affecting threatened and endangered wildlife. Meanwhile, the permit holder implements conservation measures designed to minimize those risks and mitigate their impacts to endangered wildlife. More
That partnership took a big step just over a month ago, when National Grid presented the commission with a $50,000 endowment to assist in their efforts to create and enhance land for the Karner blues on 23 acres of National Grid property. 

“The project is a solid example of public organizations and a private utility coming together for the conservation of one of the most rare habitats in the northeastern United States," says Christopher Hawver, executive director of the commission, which was created in 1988 by the New York State Legislature to protect and manage the precious remaining pitch pine and scrub oak barrens.

The project and partnership is grounded in an in-depth conservation plan finalized by National Grid this past July, when the Service issued National Grid a 50-year endangered species permit, called an incidental take permit, for both butterflies. In addition, the NYSDEC issued a similar permit under New York state  law. To receive these permits, National Grid crafted a plan (PDF) that would allow them to efficiently operate while preserving these precious species.

National Grid presents Albany Pine Bush Preserve
Commission with a $50,000 check. Credit: USFWS.
The plan includes an agreement with the commission for managing the 23 acres of rights-of-way, which borders a small population of Karner blue butterflies on the preserve. Neil Gifford, the commission’s conservation director, says he hopes that the Karner blues will colonize the new habitat on their own. But if they don’t, the commission raises Karner blues in captivity, which could support populating the right-of-ways. Gifford estimates that it will take three to five years to successfully colonize the Karner blues in that area.

This project is one of several ways that National Grid will contribute to conserving both butterflies, mitigating the construction and management activity that will eliminate 3.5 acres of the Karner blue's habitat and periodically impact an existing 34 acres of habitat during the 50-year permit. National Grid will create or enhance about 59 acres of habitat, and it will promote better habitat management in the areas near National Grid's rights-of-way. They have also agreed to reduce existing threats from off-road vehicles.

Gifford is thrilled about the new partnership and explains that he has been looking forward to teaming up with National Grid for a while. 

“Having this power line running through the middle of the preserve generated some management challenges for us,” says Gifford. “This management agreement is going to dramatically expedite our ability to use prescribed fire and improve the health of habitat adjacent to the utility line.” 


Submitted by Raechel Kelley, an intern in the Northeast Region External Affairs office.

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