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How love of beer, good people, and creative collaborations are helping to save a rare Colorado butterfly

By Rob Schorr

My name is Rob Schorr and I have been working as a conservation biologist in Colorado for 17 years.  I stumbled upon my dream job at a little-known, but very important, conservation organization called the Colorado Natural Heritage Program back in 1997.  CNHP is tucked away in a corner of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and has been collecting information on the location and condition of rare species throughout Colorado since the late 1970s.  What I spend much of my time doing is studying the condition of populations of rare animals in Colorado.

The species I have come to know and love because it brought me to CNHP is the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.  As many may know, this little mouse is only found from southeastern Wyoming to Colorado Springs, Colorado and rarely ventures far from river systems that are moist, heavily vegetated, and usually pretty challenging for me to navigate through.  I’ve separated walls of willow, rose, stinging nettle, alder, currant, and wild hops in search of Preble’s mice and their habitat.

Female hops blue butterfly in tangle of wild hops

The beginnings

It was during one of many search efforts that I began to notice how prevalent wild hops is along some drainages of the Front Range of Colorado.  Other than for my general love of Colorado beer and for its tenacity when trying to pass through it I didn’t pay it much attention.  However, in 2011, when my zoological colleague Jeremy Siemers and I were conducting a biological inventory at the U.S. Air Force Academy we spent quite a bit of time focusing on wild hops and the fluttering visitors that might be using it.  You see, wild hops is a favorite plant to several butterfly species and one of these species is only known from the Front Range of Colorado.  That species is the hops blue butterfly, or, as us zoology types like to refer to it, Celastrina humulus. The hops blue butterfly is about the size of a quarter, only found from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, and lays its eggs on the male flowers of wild hops.

Over the obligate beverage for such conversations, Jeremy and I brainstormed on how we could better understand the ecology of this gorgeous, poorly-understood butterfly.  The inspiration was in our hands.  We both believed that this butterfly and Colorado’s general love of all things beer was the perfect stage for developing a novel partnership for conservation.  We believed melding beer and conservation would be a partnership many Coloradans would love to celebrate.  We toasted our glasses and I worked on my sales pitch.

Female hops blue butterfly with wings open

The partnership

I’d like to think that it was because of my smooth-talking salesmanship that I wrangled one of the most beloved Colorado breweries into entertaining this idea, but the truth is I approached the right brewery and the right people.  Odell Brewing Company not only thought a partnership was in order, but decided to brew a beer in recognition of the hops blue and called it Celastrina Saison.  They further demonstrated their commitment to conserving unique pieces of Colorado diversity by donating $1 for every bottle sold.  After its release in May 2013 it flew off the shelf and quickly became more scarce than the butterfly it celebrated.  In December 2013, Odell Brewing Company presented CNHP with a check for $12,000 to study the ecology of the hops blue butterfly.

The Celastrina Saison announcement poster from the tapping event at Odell Brewing Company

The author, Karla Baise (Odell Brewing Company) and David Anderson (CNHP) at the donation event

Now what?

Boggled and nearly tearful, I accepted the check and began brainstorming on how best to use the funds for conservation.  Considering it was more than twice what Odell expected to donate and about 4 times what I ever expected to receive, I felt the need to develop a slightly different plan for these funds. A lifetime’s supply of beer flashed through my mind, but was quickly erased by the lack of storage space in my basement.  What did stick and is now evolving is to set aside these funds within Colorado State University as a way of funding honors undergraduate students to conduct research on rare species in Colorado.

The obvious first species to address was the butterfly.  I was graced by two dedicated honors undergraduate students, Callie Puntenney and Emily Vavra, who in the summer of 2014 surveyed habitat at the U.S. Air Force Academy to produce the first population estimates for the hops blue butterfly.  This research sets the first baseline estimate to assess how well hops blue butterflies are doing at the Academy.  CNHP hopes to recruit more honors students to continue this work, and more to address other rare species in Colorado.  We are actively trying to build these funds through a crowd-sourcing project at CSU called CHARGE!

 

Emily Vavra working in the field collecting data on hops blue butterflies

Callie Puntenney presenting her honors undergraduate research

How you can help

Since this project began I’ve been approached repeatedly from citizens interested in helping (and finding more Celastrina Saison).  The first thing I stress with all of the conservation-minded and beer-loving constituents is that we need to continue to provide habitat for the hops blue butterfly.  The habitats that have made the butterfly, and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, rare are much less common than they used to be. Broad, meandering creeks that support hops, willow, snowberry and a great variety of plant and animal life are harder to find.  Many of the Front Range’s streams and rivers have homes and other development too close to support these plants and animals, and the streams have been forced into concrete-lined paths.  So, I ask anyone interested in conserving the butterfly that they express their desire for open space and lands that allow streams and wildlife to flourish, and allow the citizens of Colorado to enjoy them.  The second thing I ask is that people do not use the wild hops as a resource for their own brewing.  As tempting as it is to cull the flowers from wild hops, these flowers are necessary for future hops plants and future hops blue butterflies.  Lastly, if people are interested in supporting conservation research on Colorado species, I ask them to visit our CHARGE! project and discover how they can support student research on rare species.

Monument Creek at the U.S. Air Force Academy is a broad, meandering creek that supports the hops blue butterfly and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse

 

How you can help, right now