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An orange and black butterfly called the Quino checkerspot once flourished from the Santa Monica Mountains down into northern Baja California and could be found throughout San Diego County.
The butterfly is now on the verge of disappearing. Its last bastions include an area east of Otay Lake, poised to become a major new housing development.
There are at least three projects that may impact the butterfly’s habitat in Otay, home to some of the species’ strongest populations. One project specifically is coming forward and forcing the county to consider the butterfly.
“It used to be one of the most common butterflies in SoCal,” said Dan Silver, CEO of Endangered Habitats League. “Now it’s on the verge of extinction.”
The crucial project, called Otay Village 13, is expected to come before the County’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors this year, but it’s facing a hurdle with the butterfly.
Most species on the federal endangered species list are included in the county’s Multiple Species Conservation Program. Through the program, each part of the county tries to protect biodiversity and endangered species through a network of habitat preserves and open space. When developers want to build in an area where a species is found, they counteract the damage by creating habitat elsewhere.
But the butterfly is the only species that appears on the federal endangered species list that’s not also included in South County’s Multiple Species Conservation Program. The developers behind the proposed projects won’t need to take steps to diminish their effect on the Quino.
The Quino was listed as endangered in 1997, only one year before the approval of the South County conservation program. The county had been working on the program for years, and adding the Quino to it would have required additional research. The county instead decided to approve the conservation program without the Quino, and said it would write an amendment later to protect the butterfly.
Nearly two decades later, that still hasn’t happened.
“What’s going to happen to us if this butterfly disappears?” said Gordon Pratt, a professor and researcher at UC Riverside, who studies the Quino. “Probably nothing, but if you take everything together and you’re constantly losing species after species, you’re going to be left with an awful environment. You’re going to be left with weeds, mosquitos and black flies – the ones that can survive in the presence of man.”
Pratt said the butterfly is particularly sensitive to development because new projects often bring creatures like earwigs and ants, which eat Quino larvae.
Stephen Haase, a senior executive at Baldwin & Sons and a member of the city of San Diego’s Planning Commission, is leading the development of one of the projects that will affect the butterfly. His project would put 1,900 homes, roughly 40,000 square feet of retail, 1,000 acres of open space and a 200-room resort hotel in the area.
Haase said the project’s been around for 10 years, and the county’s been talking about writing the amendment the whole time, but things keep getting in the way. Now, his company’s project is getting things moving again.
In 2009, the county started on the amendment, but funding shortfalls and attention to wildfires and drought conditions took precedence.
Haase said he thinks everyone involved recognizes the Quino amendment is a good idea. Without it, you force each developer individually to undo any harm they might cause to the butterfly. That’s harder for developers, and worse for the species.
“I accept that as the price of development,” Haase said. “Since we’ve taken land away, we have to be careful and take care of these species.”
But his company’s project is especially important for the butterfly.
“(That project) is uniquely important because it’s the population that appears the strongest, based on the data we have,” Silver said. “It appears to be essential.”
The Quino is an odd butterfly. If the conditions aren’t just right for its caterpillars to become butterflies, they stay dormant for a long time, but they aren’t dead or extinct.
During a drought in the ‘80s, Pratt said, people believed the butterfly was extinct because no one saw it for years. Then suddenly in the ‘90s, someone found a population in Riverside County and it was emergency listed.
“It’s kind of an unusual butterfly,” Pratt said. “It can live in hibernation for years waiting for just the right conditions to emerge. This is a problem because we have found some populations that go extinct before you realize it.”
Mike Klein, a biologist who has studied the butterfly and done surveys for various public agencies, said the Quino will suddenly halt in mid-life as a caterpillar: it rolls into a ball, maybe hiding under a rock, and hibernates, waiting for the right conditions to become a butterfly.
While Pratt and Klein think this trait makes the species more vulnerable, Haase said it reveals the butterfly’s toughness.
“This species acts differently,” said Haase. “During the drought you may not have seen any butterflies. Does that mean they were extinct? No. This critter is really resilient.”
Without the amendment, Baldwin & Sons and any other developers who want to build on Quino habitat have to seek permits from agencies at both the state and federal level – a more complicated process on their end.
Under the South County conservation plan, roughly 11,000 acres were dedicated as open space that is meant to protect endangered species, like the golden eagle. For every acre in the Otay Ranch area that was developed, 1.88 acre was dedicated as open space. This habitat is meant to be an ecosystem where the endangered species included in the plan could survive – having the types of soil, plants, etc. that they needed.
But all these years later, the Quino still isn’t included in this plan.
“All of us have relied on the (conservation plan) to say we can have a lot of development but we’re going to mitigate it and conserve the ecosystem,” Silver said. “Developers want certainty for their development but from the conservation side, you want certainty, too. We do need to cover the Quino.”