An endangered blue butterfly lives in the sand barrens of western Wisconsin. Its range overlaps almost perfectly with the sand that’s become a lucrative part of a boom in natural gas drilling.
And to kill a Karner blue without a permit violates federal law.
But of the dozens of frac sand companies that have descended upon the area, just one, Unimin, has applied to the state Department of Natural Resources to be able to legally destroy Karner blues in its operations, according to David Lentz, who coordinates the agency’s Karner blue butterfly habitat conservation plan.
And only four companies have contacted the agency’s Bureau of Endangered Resources directly.
“They have to let us know they’re there,” Lentz said. “And they haven’t been.”
His concern is that companies’ due diligence may not be perfectly diligent.
“Are they in such a rush to get to the gold that they’re not going to consider their environmental or regulatory responsibilities, and take that risk?” Lentz asked.
The Karner blue is just one wrinkle in the state’s struggle with this fast-moving industry, which has homed in on Wisconsin for the quality of its sand.
Silica sand mined here is used in a drilling process nicknamed “fracking,” in which sand, water and chemicals are blasted into wells, creating fissures in the rock and freeing hard-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas.
“The ‘sand boom’ took us by surprise,” noted state senior geologist Bruce Brown in an October presentation. “Many counties were overwhelmed by mining applications, and the scale of mining has presented problems we haven’t dealt with before.”
While the state Department of Transportation has been studying the effects of transporting all the sand on the state’s roads and rail lines, the DNR has devoted more staff to permits and enforcement. Two staffers are working just on frac sand air pollution permits, two more jobs have been devoted to enforcement, and since September, staffer Tom Woletz’s entire job has been coordinating frac sand permits.
As of mid-January, the DNR had counted about 60 mines, 32 plants either operating or being built, and 20 more proposed mines — more than double the 41 mines or plants the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism counted in mid-July. The agency conservatively estimated the state’s capacity at more than 12 million tons of sand a year.
Woletz said the agency can’t say exactly how many companies are out there and what their status is. They have no centralized industry organization, and they are “very competitive and very secretive” when buying land, he said.
The DNR on Tuesday issued a 43-page summary of the industry’s processes, their potential environmental impacts and applicable regulations.
Overall, Woletz said, the industry is “fairly well funded and they are receptive to doing what they need to do as far as permitting and compliance. But they want their permits at business speed,” — that is, “tomorrow.”
‘The people’s insect’
It’s no coincidence that wherever there’s frac sand, the Karner blue may be nearby. This quarter-size, gossamer-blue butterfly lives much of its life on wild lupine, whose blue-purple flowers are a common sight in Wisconsin’s sand barrens.
The Karner blue lays its eggs on lupine. In mid-April, the caterpillars crawl up lupine shoots to eat the new leaves. By late May or early June, the adults hatch from their chrysalises to drink flower nectar, mate and lay eggs. The next generation has a mating flight in July.
The federal government declared the Karner blue an endangered species in 1992 because much of its habitat is gone — except in Wisconsin, where lupines are plentiful. A “high probability range” of area deemed at least 50 percent likely to have Karners covers 1.9 million acres and includes parts of 19 counties.
Black River Falls even holds an annual Karner Blue Butterfly Festival.
Lentz calls it “the people’s insect.”
Just because a mine is in the high-probability Karner blue range doesn’t necessarily mean it has butterflies. But it does mean the company should call DNR to ask about them.
Some frac sand mines are simply digging up the sandstone under old sand and gravel mines. Or maybe they bought a corn field where lupine doesn’t grow — but on the other hand, an access road to that field may have lots of lupine.
No lupine means no Karners and no worries. If there’s lupine, they need to survey for butterflies.
Flying under some companies’ radar?
Some mining companies may not know they could be endangering Karner blue habitat.
Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for the Tiller Corp., which is operating a mine in northwest Wisconsin on behalf of Minnesota-based International Energy Partners, said he hadn’t thought about the Karner blue until he got a reporter’s voicemail about it. Tiller began mining an existing sand and gravel mine for frac sand last summer.
Caron said that in discussions about expanding, he couldn’t recall butterflies ever being mentioned. But after calling his environmental consultant, Caron said that if Tiller wants to build into previously undisturbed areas, it will likely survey for lupine.
Calls to several other mines in the high-probability area were not returned.
After the Karner blue was listed as endangered, landowners like utilities and loggers sat down with the DNR for five years to hammer out an unusual statewide habitat conservation plan that industry and conservationists agree has been a success.
The DNR has a federal permit to take butterflies and can extend that permit to its conservation “partners.” The 42 partners survey for butterflies, follow protocols during construction or maintenance, maintain habitat on their lands, and pay for the restoration of any habitat that’s destroyed.
“It’s really been our lifesaver in terms of being able to continue our operation,” said Gordon Mouw, certification and resource manager for NewPage Corp., an Ohio-based paper company that used to own thousands of acres in Wisconsin.
Unlike the current conservation partners, sand mines pose the prospect of large-scale habitat destruction.
Lentz said there’s room for it.
“If we lose some habitat on frac sand, it’s not going to jeopardize the recovery of this species,” he said.
But ecologist Lane cautioned that while the science of turning sand pits back into sand barrens has improved, it’s far from certain.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “It’s far more complicated.”
Contact Kate Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org. The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.