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St. Lucie atala butterfly conservation program awarded national designation

St. LUCIE, Fla. – Despite COVID-19 restrictions limiting the use of parks and natural settings, residents of all ages can still enjoy what nature has to offer in almost every urban location including one’s own backyard. That is why conservation programs are highly valued and encouraged.

A UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie conservation program designed to engage citizens in protecting a rare butterfly species once considered extinct has earned national recognition as it continues to help the rare butterfly species population thrive.

Atala butterfly adult female Photo Credit: Donald W. Hall, UF

The National Association of Counties (NACo) has awarded the “Florida Atala Butterfly Conservation Extension Program” led by UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County with a 2020 Achievement Award in the category of County Resiliency: Infrastructure, Energy &; Sustainability. NACo recognized the pioneering work of 541 entries this month from counties and state associations in 30 states honoring innovative, effective county government programs that strengthen services for residents.

Nationally, NACo awards are given in 18 different categories that reflect the vast, comprehensive services counties provide. The categories include children and youth, criminal justice and public safety, county administration, information technology, health, civic engagement and many more.

“This distinction from NACo is a recognition of the commitment of residents, communities and partners to promote sustainability of a species by adopting conservation methods and changing landscaping practices that threaten the atala’s existence,” said Ken Gioeli a natural resources Extension agent at UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie. “People are excited when they learn about the atala’s unique biology and conservation status and they are even more excited when they spot them in their yards.”

The Florida atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala Poey) is a rare hairstreak butterfly characterized by satiny black wings featuring an iridescent turquois shimmer. It was thought to be extinct from 1937 -1959 due to overharvest of its host plant known as the coontie, Zamia integrifolia. These butterflies were rediscovered in ephemeral populations in coastal Florida. In July 2017, a member of the Florida Native Plant Society contacted Gioeli to report a large population of atala butterflies at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park. The Florida Atala Butterfly Conservation Extension Program took flight and since then has catapulted interest among residents and groups which has led to the program’s success.

Atala buttefly catterpillars are host specific to the coontie plant, Zamia integrifolia. Photo credit: Ken Gioeli.

Several factors continue to suppress atala butterfly populations. The availability of its host plant is one of the limiting factors, reports Gioeli. Coontie is commonly planted in landscapes throughout central and south Florida, however, they are often costly plants heavily maintained by chemical insecticides. Some landscape insecticides are especially toxic to the species. Atala butterflies remain in a precarious condition because of these factors.

Citizens of St. Lucie County recognized the rarity of these butterflies and many have expressed a desire to protect and conserve existing atala butterfly populations, adds Gioeli. An abundance of public interest in the atala butterfly population at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, provided an opportunity for Gioeli to work with partners at the park and the Florida Native Plant Society to launch an educational outreach effort in August 2017. These efforts were designed to teach residents about the life history of this rare butterfly with an emphasis on atala-friendly landscape practices.

Through a continued effort in educating Florida residents about the unique needs of the rare atala butterfly, citizens in counties through central and south Florida began to learn how to conserve them through improved landscape practices.

Today, that program has led to awareness of the plight of the atala butterfly across the southern counties of Florida where they were once considered extinct. UF/IFAS Extension offices in Martin, Indian River, Brevard, Broward, Miami-Dade, Collier and Palm Beach counties are involved in atala butterfly conservation educational outreach resulting in increased knowledge and practice adoption.

“My first public field day was for the Native Plant Society on August 13, 2017 for 35 people,” said Gioeli. “They saw the atala butterflies at Fort Pierce State Inlet Park. My last event took place as a webinar entitled “Florida atala butterflies back from the brink?” on April 7, 2020 amid COVID-19 and 203 participants logged on. The engagement continues.”

For more information on the program, visit this link or contact your UF/IFAS Extension office.

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By: Lourdes Rodriguez, 954-577-6363 office, 954-242-8439 mobile, rodriguezl@ufl.edu

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)
is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make
that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than
a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty
in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions
to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

ifas.ufl.edu  @UF_IFAS

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