Two rare butterflies that have taken center stage in the fight over developing a rare forest in Miami-Dade County are being added to the endangered species list, federal wildlife managers announced Monday.
The listing of the Bartram’s hairsteak and Florida leaf wing, which will become official Sept. 11, also designates thousands of acres of critical habitat. While most of that land sits in Everglades National Park and other national park territory, a large tract circles Zoo Miami and includes habitat where the county wants to build an Orlando-style amusement park and a Palm Beach County developer is in the early stages of erecting a Walmart-anchored shopping center and apartments.
The listing and habitat designation do not stop development, but they do mean the land will have to be carefully managed, federal officials said. Fires will have to be set regularly to keep the forest thinned out and mosquito-control procedures must be changed to protect the butterflies.
To avoid breaking the law, federal officials also say developers should obtain permits for construction.
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“Anything that’s going to be done with these animals has to have our review,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mark Salvato. “We’re not to the finish line yet, but it would be pretty bad if someone knew this was going forward and rushed to mow down butterfly habitat.”
The Palm Beach County developer, Ram, said that since receiving a letter from wildlife officials July 15, it has been drafting a plan to survey the butterflies and come up with a plan to avoid affecting them adversely.
“Ram remains committed to species protection,” the developer’s statement said.
The endangered species designation process has been going on for more than a year, and is part of a 2011 settlement struck after the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization, sued the wildlife agency to speed up the protection of threatened species. Florida is home to more rare butterflies than any other state. Their decline can be linked in part to their disappearing habitat.
The Bartram’s, with its white-tipped gray wings, and the bright orange leaf wing, live only on pine rockland, a forest that once stretched from Homestead north to the Miami River. Pine rockland is also home to the endangered Florida bonneted bat, another protected species. Today, just 2 percent of the forest remains, with most of it in Everglades National Park.
The largest tract outside the park sits near Zoo Miami on what was once the Richmond Naval Air Station. The land, designated as surplus after the base shut down in 1945, remained largely undeveloped as the federal government divvied it up over the years.
Part of the land went to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Defense, Miami-Dade County and the University of Miami. The county built the zoo on some of the land, but in 2006 won voter approval to turn the remaining land into an amusement park with a water park, attractions, restaurants and hotel rooms. UM had planned to build an academic village.
But last month, Ram announced it had purchased the land from UM and and planned to build the shopping mall, drawing fierce criticism from environmentalists who long worried the county was not doing enough to protect the land. Opponents quickly started online petitions, which gathered more than 75,000 signatures. They also contacted federal officials urging them to hurry up the endangered-species listings.
Part of the worry stems from breaking up the habitat, said attorney Dennis Olle, the conservation director of the North American Butterfly Association and a board member for the Tropical Audubon Society.
“These are relatively sedentary butterflies, so it’s not like they need thousands of acres,” he said. “Obviously, Richmond was the keystone outside Everglades National Park. You might be able to build a Walmart next to a pineland. But remember you’ve got to maintain [the pineland] , which means you’ve got to burn it — so remember that when you build your houses and apartments.”