For 28 months of my life, I ate dinner at Subway.
I don’t mean that I liked Subway, nor that I would frequent Subway in the sensible manner of an adult making rational decisions. I ate dinner at Subway. I ate every dinner at Subway.
You could call it habit. You could call it convenience. You could call it a poor life choice. It was likely equal parts all three. Regardless of the reason, more than two years of my youth were marked by a comfortable symbiotic relationship with the sandwich shop.
Right or wrong, those adolescent years have given me a special appreciation for the beautiful Karner blue butterfly, a colorful little butterfly native to a region of the Eastern United States that includes Northwest Indiana and the Indiana Dunes State Park.
The caterpillar phase of the Karner blue life cycle ensures that it must also endure a physically awkward adolescent phase. And much like my dependence upon the foot-long Italian BMT, the caterpillar of the Karner blue butterfly eats only the leaves of the wild lupine plant. In fact, the Karner blues are entirely dependent upon the wild lupine plant for the very propagation of their species.
Fortunately, the dry, sandy soil and the open oak savannah of the Indiana Dunes State Park is the perfect habitat for both the wild lupine and the Karner blue butterfly. Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the number of wild lupine plants has decreased by 99%, mostly in the last 15 years, and the Karner blues have been federally listed as an endangered species for over two decades.
Cathy Carnes, the Karner blue butterfly Recovery Team Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, says the Indiana population is especially at risk. In an interview with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Program, Carnes notes that the Karner blue population of Northwest Indiana is “smaller and more at risk to loss because of their small size, [and] because of other threats that occur in the area such as commercial and residential development.”
Sadly, the Karner blue is not unique in this regard.
A local population of the piping plover, an adorable little shorebird named for its whistle-like call, once thrived along the shorelines of the Great Lakes. Vince Cavalieri, the Great Lakes piping plover Recovery Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that historically these birds would migrate to the region by the hundreds each spring from all along the coasts of the Southeast United States.
In the late 1800’s, the feathers of the piping plovers became a popular accent for the hats of fashionable women and their numbers were greatly diminished as a result.
After a brief recovery at the turn of the century, their numbers were again decimated. The development boom that occurred in the Great Lakes region following WWII resulted in substantial habitat loss for shoreline species and the introduction of many new disruptions to the breeding grounds of the piping plovers.
The trends continued for decades, as these birds gradually disappeared from every state but Michigan. In 1990, the population of the Atlantic Coast piping plovers reached its lowest count to date: twelve breeding pairs. Twelve.
The conservation and restoration of an endangered species is a daunting task. Fortunately, the FWS Recovery Coordinators like Carnes and Cavalieri are joined in their efforts by state and federal park personnel.
Brad Bumgardner, an interpretive naturalist with the Indiana Dunes State Park, explains that while some specific measures are taken to protect key endangered species found in the Indiana Dunes State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Shoreline, the main goal of the conservation effort is to restore the natural ecosystem of the dunes region.
“We’ve found that if the habitat is properly maintained, the plant and animal populations will be what they should be,” Bumgardner says.
Efforts to restore the native ecosystem include prescribed fires, which continue the natural growth cycle of the ecosystem and sustain the proper balance of plant species. The active removal of invasive plant species is another critical part of the recovery plan. Other conservation efforts include growing native plants in greenhouses and transplanting them into the parks, monitoring the endangered or threatened animal species, and fencing off critical portions of the parks to minimize visitor impact.
It would be impossible for the park personnel to accomplish all of these efforts on their own. Just as the park personnel partner with the FWS, volunteer organizations partner with the park personnel. Save The Dunes is a charitable organization that aims to protect the dune ecosystem through political activity, strategic land acquisitions, educational programs and restoration programs.
Bumgardner is confident in the conservation plans of the Indiana Dunes State Park, and confident that the Karner blue butterfly and the wild lupine are on the path toward sustainable populations. Cavalieri has seen the population of the piping plovers rebound in recent years to a (slightly) less precarious population of 58 breeding pairs. As both explained, these species serve as key indicators as to the overall health of the dunes ecosystem.
Positive population trends of threatened and endangered species indicate positive results from the conservation efforts.
The Indiana Dunes State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Shoreline are true national treasures, boasting more plant and animal biodiversity than nearly any other state or national park in the United States - more than Yellowstone, more than the Everglades. Having such extraordinary biodiversity in such close proximity to a major metropolitan area creates a unique set of opportunities to experience nature for millions of people, but it also creates a unique set of challenges to develop a sustainable community in Northwest Indiana.
To learn more about the Indiana Dunes, visit the Indiana Dunes State Park or the Indiana Dunes National Shoreline, either in person or online. To discover opportunities to participate in conservation programs, visit Save The Dunes online, at savedunes.org.