Helping to restore the Karner blue butterfly

Releasing a flurry of tiny blue butterflies among wild lupine stands in stark contrast to snapping photos of drug dealers in dark alleys. Lindsay Webb ES ’08 had been headed for those alleys when she followed a hunch, and that hunch has paid off.

In April, Lindsay and a team of two other investigators, Heidi Holman and Steve Fuller, won the 2010 Recovery Champion Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for restoring the virtually extinct Karner blue butterfly in New Hampshire. The painstaking process took nearly ten years of attending to every detail necessary to keep the Karners alive.

But details fascinate Lindsay. “I noticed everything when I was a kid and, in high school, I really liked investigating things,” she says. Naturally, guidance counselors steered her toward legal or police work. As a criminal justice major at Franklin Pierce University, she worked for a lawyer one summer, but she pinned on her first badge as a ranger in Monadnock State Park.

She began to stray from the law libraries and fingerprint files. “I had previously worked on a farm and in another park and, somehow, I realized that figuring things out and investigating are a big part of science. As a biologist, that’s what I do: investigate.”

CSI Meets Wild Kingdom
After graduating with her degree in criminal justice and working for several years as a park ranger, Lindsay recognized her love of the outdoors and wildlife. “I saw that U.S. Fish and Wildlife had a wildlife forensics laboratory, and I thought, ‘That’s it! That’s where I want to go.’ Not like there’s a lot of wildlife crime in the Northeast, but I saw that I could use the techniques for other purposes.”

Turning over the big clue was only the beginning. Lindsay would have to figure out how to use her bachelor’s degree to advance her study of science. She went back to school and took science and math courses, one after another, applying to graduate schools along the way. “I kept getting shot down. ‘No, you have the wrong degree. We’re not even going to look at you.’ They didn’t know what to do with me. They all told me to try a different school. That’s when a friend suggested I visit AUNE.”

AUNE Welcomes Diversity of Experience
Eyeing Antioch University New England’s Conservation Biology program, Lindsay came to an information session. “I was nervous because, with a degree in criminal justice, they were going to think I was crazy wanting to go there. I admitted that to somebody and they said, ‘No problem. I have an English degree.’ Everybody came from a different background, and I soon learned that Antioch New England kind of thrived on that.”

Lindsay’s thesis had CSI written all over it. Investigating “Characteristics of New England Mammal Hairs,” she learned to identify species by assessing a single hair found in the wild. While at AUNE, she went to work for New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Karner blue butterfly project, part of its Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. Helping with surveys and habitat management and nurturing the species in a lab captivated Lindsay, enhanced her master’s work, and fascinated her teachers and fellow students.

Today, as a wildlife diversity biologist, she helps to create the ideal environment for the blue butterflies, which are about the size of a quarter. They can thrive only in pine barrens, and the caterpillars will eat only the leaves of wild lupine. Through controlled burning, planting, and vegetation removal, the team manages a 31-acre historic pine barrens near the Concord, New Hampshire, airport, where only a single Karner could be found ten years ago.

In the lab, the team protects eggs that otherwise winter under the snowpack, hatch into caterpillars and become flying adults by the end of May. The butterflies mate, lay eggs and so repeat the process before winter arrives. Throughout the process, Lindsay and her colleagues use their investigative skills to distinguish the butterflies hatched in the lab from those hatched in the wild. This year, the team estimates that as many as 2,500 butterflies will make up the summer brood.

A Community Effort
Lindsay insists that the success of the project belongs to a broad community. “I’m most proud that New Hampshire Fish and Game got this award,” she says. “Others in our positions worked hard year after year, taking on seasonal help like me, lots of volunteers and interns, and Concord’s school kids, who learn about the project and grow wild lupine in classrooms every year then plant them in the pine barrens for the Karners,” says Lindsay.

“Almost everywhere I go, I run into Antioch University New England alumni,” she says. “They’re out there working in conservation planning, land trusts, and habitat projects. It was great that we could easily work in our field while going to classes. I love that the school embraced my effort to put together my criminal justice background and my love of the outdoors. I really wanted to use forensic techniques to help wildlife. People who think they have an educational background that doesn’t exactly fit will find that coming to AUNE, they’ll be welcome with open arms.”

The Karner project will continue, working to boost the population for several years. And Lindsay’s work will benefit butterflies another way. With help from other agencies, she has compiled all the techniques for raising Karners and, through U.S. Fish and Wildlife, has published the Propagation Handbook for the Karner Blue Butterfly. “It’s practical and useful, and that’s the kind of person I am,” she says.

Antioch University

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