When news broke last month that the University of Miami had sold an 88-acre plot of endangered pine rockland forest to a Palm Beach developer that planned to build a Walmart, environmentalists and activists were outraged. The rare forest is the only habitat of several species, most famously the Bartram's scrub-hairstreak butterfly. At the time, though, the species wasn't officially listed as endangered.
That changed yesterday: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the Bartram's, as well as the Florida leafwing, will be designated as endangered beginning September 11. The two species' habitats will also be listed as critical.
"What that does, in effect, is add a layer of protection," Ken Warren, a spokesman for the
USFWS, tells Riptide.
Not that much protection, though, when it comes to the planned Walmart on one of the species' last remaining pieces of native habitat.
Although the endangered listings provide the butterflies protection from federal activities and make it illegal to transport or capture the two species, it would not prevent Walmart from bulldozing their homes, and Ram, the development company, has no plans of stopping.
"Since receiving the letter from Fish & Wildlife Services on July 15, we have determined that these species should just be treated as if they are listed -- we will do a survey for occupied habitat and come up with an avoidance plan," the company's chairman, Peter Cummings, said in a statement. "Ram is committed to species protection."
The Bartram's scrub-hairstreak, a gray butterfly with broad white bands and a bright-orange dot on each wing, lives only in the pine rocklands in five areas of Miami-Dade County and Big Pine Key, according to Warren, and the leafwing is now found only in the Everglades. The ranges of both have been decimated by development.
"When you mess with their habitat," Warren says, "you mess with their ability to breed, to feed, and to shelter."
Anti-development activists who have recently visited the site say there's no question the endangered butterfly is living there.
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Last month Paul Anthony, who previously lived near the site of the land sale and opposes the development, took a walk with a Zoo Miami official around the property adjacent to the land slated for development by Ram. It was rainy, and the forest wasn't as vibrant as usual, but along the side of a dirt road on the property Anthony saw a flash of gray, white, and orange perched atop a flower -- a Bartram's.
"We were like, 'Oh, great! We found one!'" Anthony tells Riptide. "Anytime you see one, it brings a smile to your face."