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The Mystery of Colorado's Butterfly Populations

“Where have all the butterflies gone?” is a common question I get when I tell people I study butterflies for a living.

By Sarah Garrett, Lepidopterist

I’m often regaled with stories from those who grew up in Colorado amidst booming populations of butterflies – oh, how I wish I could have experienced such a time!

The Mystery of Colorado's Butterfly Population

Sadly, I don’t know exactly what has happened to native populations through the years and it’s not a simple question to answer. Unlike the monarch butterfly, which for 20+ years has held the attention of a dozen or more researchers and nationwide volunteer groups, native populations of butterflies in Colorado have gone almost unattended.

In order to take a proactive approach to native butterflies, Butterfly Pavilion developed Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network as a way for volunteers to learn about native butterflies while at the same time providing valuable data to scientists and landowners. Each spring, new volunteers are trained on butterfly identifications and monitoring protocols. Once training is complete, volunteers become ‘citizen scientists’ and pick their monitoring location, typically a favorite local walking/hiking trail.

Volunteering for CBMN involves walking a designated route, at a specific location, a least six times over the course a field season (Mary 15th – September 15th). We use “Pollard Walk” protocols where we focus monitoring on pre-existing trails that covers multiple habitat types. During their first year volunteers are trained to identify butterflies to their respective families, focusing on 25 species, and with additional yearly trainings are encouraged to expand their identification abilities.

Citizen science has been shown to be a powerful tool in raising awareness and collecting important data scientists can use to learn and evaluate the world in which we live. Through data collected by CBMN citizen scientists, who monitor the same locations from year to year, we will be able to observe the fluctuations of butterfly abundance and diversity. Over the long term, the information from these surveys will assist land managers in more effective conservation of Colorado’s butterflies and their habitats. Currently we work with: Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks, City & County of Broomfield Parks & Open Space, Jefferson County Open Space, Colorado State Parks, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, City of Westminster Open Space, Denver Botanical Gardens at Chatfield, Plans Conservation Center and USF&W.

Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network, also called CBMN, is part of the larger North American Butterfly Monitoring Network, which consists of 12 other states/regions around the country.  The summer of 2013 was the pilot year for CBMN and started with 8 citizen scientists monitoring 9 sites. As of summer of 2017 CBMN had grown to include 163 citizen scientists monitoring 11 sites. Most sites are located within the Front Range, but our collaboration with Colorado Parks & Wildlife has extended our reach to Steamboat Springs and Ridgeway, CO. Our goal is to continue to grow the program so that one day we are monitoring butterflies across the entire state of Colorado!

Currently we have two trainings scheduled for 2018 at Butterfly Pavilion: Sunday April 29th and Wednesday May 16th. If you’re interested in attending a training, or would like more information on CBMN, please contact Butterfly Pavilion’s Lepdiopterist, Sarah Garret.

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