Sandhill

August 22, 2022

Photo by: Patrick Donnelly/AP

I came across and AP article last week about a rare butterfly living in a remote area of northwest Nevada near the Oregon line.  Conservationists from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) says the project the Bureau of Land Management approved last year could ultimately lead to the extinction of the 2-inch-long butterfly.  The CBD is now petitioning the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the bleached sandhill skipper under the Endangered Species Act at the only place it’s known to exist.  USFWS has 90 days to decide whether there’s enough evidence to conduct a yearlong review to determine if protection is warranted, so any formal listing is likely years away.

When I looked online, I found the sandhill skipper (Polites sabuleti), or Saltgrass skipper, is a butterfly in the family Hesperiidae found from southern British Columbia and eastern Washington, south through California and northern Arizona to Baja California, and east to south-eastern Wyoming, central Colorado, and north-eastern New Mexico.  It is also an introduced species in Hawaii.  The wingspan is 1-1¼ inches (22–32 mm).  There is one generation of adults on wing from June to August at high elevations and several generations from March to October in the southern part of its range and at low elevations.  The larvae feed on various grasses, while the adults feed on flower nectar.  While the sandhill skipper may be widely distributed, the bleached sandhill skipper is a subspecies found in only one place, in the meadows at Baltazor Hot Spring in Humboldt County, Nevada.  It is differentiated by its golden-orange wings.  There are no official government counts of the subspecies population, but scientific surveys from 2014-2019 indicate it is in decline and estimates place the numbers from fewer than 10,000 to hundreds.  The small geographic range and specific habitat of this subspecies make it highly vulnerable to extinction.

The Reno based firm Ormat Nevada wants to tap hot water beneath the earth to generate carbon-free energy the administration has made a key part of its effort to combat climate change with a shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources.  Opposition to those efforts in Nevada has come from conservationists, tribes and others who generally support greener energy.  The CBD and a Nevada tribe have been battling the Ormat in federal court since December over another power plant scheduled to begin operation in the Dixie Meadows 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Reno.  The USFWS declared the quarter-sized Dixie Valley toad endangered on a temporary emergency basis in April.  The proposed power plant would sit outside the sandhill’s habitat, a single alkali wetland of around 1,500 acres (607 hectares) created by discharge from the Baltazor Hot Springs.  However, tapping the underground water would likely affect the flows that support the plants that host the larva that hatch from the butterfly’s eggs and provide nectar for adults.  While the original plans have been shifted so the geothermal plant is farther away from the butterfly’s habitat, no mitigation would offset the chances the project would alter the spring’s hydrology, potentially drying up the hot spring.  This would cause the bleached sandhill’s extinction.

THOUGHTS:  A report released by the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) forecasts they are on track to approve 48 wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects with the capacity to produce around 31.827 GW of electricity by the end of the fiscal 2025 budget cycle.  Most of these sites are in the Great Basin Desert of Nevada, Utah, and southeastern California.  The condition of high temperatures and arid landscape has historically made these areas unacceptable for most human habitation but have resulted in niche species and subspecies (like the bleached sandhill skipper and the Dixie Valley toad) who survive around the isolated water sources.  Taping geothermal is a good way to help wean the country off fossil fuels, but it cannot be done by disregarding the fragile environments we have neglected in the past.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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