Book feature: Vancouver Island butterflies in decline

Butterflies make homes in Rithet's Bog, Island View Beach and in undisturbed Garry oak meadows across Greater Victoria

A common ringlet butterfly survives locally in grassland habitats like Rithet’s Bog

At one time, southern Vancouver Island was a mecca for butterflies and attracted scientists and collectors from all over North America. The expansive Garry oak meadows and rolling grasslands were perfect butterfly habitats, and in 1884, prominent lepidopterist George Taylor noted that forty species were considered abundant. Unfortunately, after a century of urbanization and human activity, many species have been extirpated, most existing populations are in decline and several species are endangered.

Butterfly survival is precarious at the best of times. It is a challenge just to survive natural obstacles like extreme weather, parasites and predators. Those that make it must then face a gauntlet of human-related hazards like habitat destruction, pesticide spraying and invasive plants and predators.

The toll on butterflies in the Victoria region has been significant. The distribution maps in Butterflies of British Columbia indicate that 61 species have been historically recorded in the region. In the recently published Victoria Nature Guide, local butterfly specialist James Miskelly estimated that only 30 to 35 species can still be found. Unfortunately, that means about 50 per cent of butterfly species have likely been lost in the Capital Region.

Butterflies are one of the most beautiful and fascinating creatures on earth and one of the intangibles that make our world such a wonderful place to live.

For that alone, they should be saved, but the bigger picture is that they are an integral part of the fabric of nature. Most people forget that nature supplies us with essentials such as the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and medicines that cure our diseases.

Saving butterflies is tantamount to saving nature, and in many cases, that is as simple as preserving natural habitats and sensitive ecosystems. What’s good for butterflies is also good for humans.

Three of the endangered species that still exist in Greater Victoria are the propertius duskywing, the common ringlet, and the Western branded skipper. The propertius duskywing relies on Garry oaks as its main host plant and is only found around Garry oak meadows; the common ringlet survives mainly in grassland habitats like Rithet’s Bog, Viaduct Flats and Island View Beach; and the Western branded skipper requires specific grassland habitat like Cordova Spit. Whether these species survive will depend a lot on the human commitment to maintain and preserve their natural habitats.

Mike Yip is the author of Vancouver Island Butterflies, available at Bolen Books, Munro’s Books, and Tanner’s Books for $34.95. Greater Victoria ecologist James Miskelly assisted with the book by producing updated distribution maps and contributing several photos.