HERSHEY, Pa. - A cooperative project started in 2011 between Fort Indiantown Gap and ZooAmerica is in the middle of its fifth season raising regal fritillary butterflies for release into new areas of the commonwealth.
The project originally started with then Fort Indiantown Gap wildlife office research associate Julie Eckenrode and ZooAmerica naturalist Tim Becker breaking new ground on regal research. The project is now mainly coordinated between Becker and Fort Indiantown Gap research associate Erika McKinney.
The annual process begins in the fall when fertile female regals collected at Fort Indiantown Gap are brought to ZooAmerica labs to lay eggs. In 2015, eight females were brought to the zoo and laid approximately 9,000 eggs, according to McKinney. Once the eggs hatch into caterpillars, they are distributed among the zoo's lab facilities and butterfly houses as well as active reintroduction sites. Once this is over, the remaining females are also released into reintroduction sites to live out the remainder of their four-month adult lives.
Since its inception, the project has added cooperative partners and received funding from several grants that have contributed to the overall success of the project. One of those cooperative partners is thePennsylvaniaGame Commission, which has become a partner for release sites. Several of these sites have already experienced success and efforts are continuing to expand these sites through this continuing cooperative project. The PennsylvaniaDepartment of Conservation and Natural Resources' Wildlife Resource Conservation Program has been one of the major grant funding sources for the project.
Becker explained the regal project falls in line with ZooAmerica's ongoing commitment to conservation. In addition to this project, they are currently active in projects related to the American kestrel and barn owls. In the past, the zoo was a key partner in the PennsylvaniaGame Commission's now-successful efforts to reintroduce the peregrine falcon toPennsylvania.
With several conservation successes already behind the zoo, how is success measured with this project?
"Establishing self-sustaining populations off the Fort Indiantown Gap property and expanding that outward into any suitable habitat we can find could be gauged as success," said Becker.
The work being done by those involved with the project is rewarding at all levels.
"I'd like people to know that what we are doing is really for the species' benefit," said McKinney. "A lot of time has gone into this, but in the end, we're helping to save a species."
Becker added, "I really like the cooperative and team aspects of this project. What we're doing is very important and I think cutting edge, really, because I don't think anyone has ever worked as extensively with this species before other than just dabbling with it with very limited success. I think we're breaking a lot of new ground with this project."
The regal fritillary is a species of great conservation concern inPennsylvaniaas well as the rest of the country. It is an unmistakable large, orange and black butterfly that looks like no other in the world, according to Mark Swartz, wildlife biologist at Fort Indiantown Gap. It was once common throughout the Northeast and was found in at least 39 counties inPennsylvania. Over the past 30 years, the regal has disappeared from its entire historic range east of Indiana save Fort Indiantown Gap. In 2014, it was formally petitioned for endangered species status and is currently under review by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Regal fritillaries thrive in the prairie-like landscape — open areas dominated by native grasses and wildflowers — of the firing ranges at the installation where habitat is created and maintained by repeated, frequent soil disturbance, patchy fires and stewardship efforts.
The population at Fort Indiantown Gap continues to be a stronghold with a population estimated at 5,000 adults during the summer of 2015 according to Swartz.
"With all of the conservation disasters in the world, Fort Indiantown Gap's regal story is a true success," said Swartz. "It has been successful largely due to the way the habitat has been maintained through disturbances related to military activities and a well-integrated land management scheme."
Those interested in seeing this rare butterfly have the opportunity to do so each year. Fort Indiantown Gap showcases this butterfly to the public each year by opening up training areas normally closed to the public for tours of the habitat. Four dates are set aside for tours each summer with more than 500 people coming from around the world to see this rare butterfly. Tours of the habitat for 2016 are set for July 1, 2, 8 and 10.
Fort Indiantown Gap is the only live-fire, maneuver military training facility in Pennsylvania. It serves as headquarters to the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs andPennsylvaniaNational Guard and offers more than 17,000 acres and 140 training areas and facilities for year-round training. The installation balances one of the region's most ecologically diverse areas with a military mission that annually supports 20,000PennsylvaniaNational Guard personnel and more than 120,000 additional personnel from other branches of service, multinational partners and interagency partners at the federal, state and local level.
ZooAmerica is a year-round, 11-acre, walk-through zoo, adjacent to Hersheypark, located in Hershey, Pa. The zoo is home to more than 200 animals from five regions of North America and prides itself on following a mission of education and conservation.