The race to save California’s rarest butterflies

By: Ben Wyatt

Population declines of butterflies have been so dramatic in California recently that for some species, this fertility clinic (San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Alliance) is the only reason they still exist at all.

The Laguna Mountains skipper, for example – a one-inch-wide butterfly with dark brown and cream mottled wings – is found only in a small area of the Cleveland National Forest, around 30 miles away from the zoo. Or it used to be. A skipper hasn’t been seen on the mountain of its name for over 20 years. 

And it’s just one of 18 critically endangered Californian butterfly and moth species that risk being lost forever thanks to a combination of global warming, loss of habitat, pesticide poisoning, wildfires and drought.

The rearing of these insects is a labour-intensive process. But when the species is part of a collapsing population of pollinators in a state that accounts for over a third of America’s vegetable production and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, the urgency makes more sense.

According to a US Fish and Wildlife Service report, it could cost more than $3m (£2.2m) and take until 2045 for the skipper to recover to the point where it’s no longer considered endangered.