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Two Endangered Florida Butterflies Earn Protection

Aug 12, 2014 11:16 AM EDT

Two butterfly species that hail from South Florida won federal protection as endangered species on Monday. Now, wildlife officials are preparing to revamp their dwindling homes and work with construction plans that may get in the way of restoring these beautiful insects' habitats.

This decision is part of a much larger resolution to a dispute between the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center had previous launched a lawsuit against the FWS, claiming that the government agency was not doing enough to protect countless vulnerable species in the United States.

The butterflies in question - the Florida leafwing and the Bartram's scrub-hairsteak - will gain endangered status along will 757 other imperiled species in an agreement that the FWS would expedite plans to protect them.

"This is an important victory for these two struggling Florida butterflies," Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida-based attorney at the Center, said in a statement. "This designation should help protect the rare and disappearing pine rocklands that are important habitat for a host of Florida species."

Monday's decision comes with a promise from the FWS to work with local officials to protect 10,561 acres of habitat for the Florida leafwing butterfly - which remarkably looks just like a browning leaf - and 11,539 acres for the Bartram's scrub-hairstreak butterfly - a large gray butterfly accented with dashes of color across its wings.

Most of this designated habitat sits within Everglades National Park and other park territory, however, some of the habitat lies where there are plans to build an amusement park and where developers are in the early stages of plotting out a Walmart-centered shopping center and apartment complexes.

"The last thing these butterflies need is another strip mall smack in the middle of some of their most important habitat," Lopez added.

However, according to the Miami Herald, the listing and habitat designation for these butterflies does not actually halt development. It instead means that use of the land will have to be "carefully managed."

"Anything that's going to be done with these animals has to have our review," FWS biologist Mark Salvato told the Herald.

He added that contractors will now be hesitant to move forward without the FWS go-ahead. Meanwhile, the FWS will focus on restoring the rest of the protected habitat.

"First and foremost, we need to get habitat restoration going," he told the Sun Sentinel. "These butterflies occur exclusively in pine rockland habitat, and... everywhere their habitat is, it's degraded. The first thing is prescribed burns. That's going to be the big one."

The FWS has already made plans to start controlled burns of this crucial butterfly ecosystem, eliminating choked vegetation to make way for the return of plants they need to survive.

Salvato says he's confident that with the right amount of attention, these butterflies can make a comeback.

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