The expensive, protected moths of Martha’s Vineyard

This Imperial Moth, classified as "threatened" under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, was trapped as part of a survey of Sheriff's Meadow Foundation property. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Some have whimsically lyrical names, like the Chain Dot Geometer, the Slender Clearwing Sphinx and Gerhard’s Underwing. Some, like the Pale Green Pinion, or the Orange Sallow, flash a striking blend of nature’s most brilliant hues.

They are moths. In scientific lingo, they are the order Lepidoptera, from the class Insecta.

We have lots of them on Martha’s Vineyard, and many of them are protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). That protection comes at a cost.

Vineyard landowners run afoul of MESA year after year, on projects as innocuous as clearing a backyard walking path, or as carefully calculated as a luxury housing development. If it encroaches on land classified as “priority habitat,” then the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) has a powerful, and sometimes expensive, role to play in how the development will affect moth habitat.

NHESP exists within the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. It is a small agency with a powerful regulatory reach. It is responsible for the regulatory protection of rare species and their habitats and derives its authority from MESA.

Natural Heritage has review authority for any work that would be done on the properties that fall within the category of state designated “priority habitat.” It is a designation based on the known geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plants and animals.

On Martha’s Vineyard, the state has designated about two-thirds of the entire Island as priority habitat for protected animal or plant species.

Landowners can proceed with projects that may impact listed species, termed a “take” in conservation jargon, but must first apply for a conservation and management permit.

A permit for work on a property of under five acres will cost $600, and over that size the fee jumps to $4,000.

A permit may be granted if the impact is minimal, if there are no good alternatives, or if there is an accepted mitigation plan. For example, cut four pitch pines (moth habitat) and protect 12 pitch pines elsewhere.

Man vs. moth

In some cases, developers can amend plans to preserve moth habitat, or provide alternative habitat, with little hindrance to the project.

In a few, the cost is so great that the development never gets off the drawing boards. Landowners are left to chafe over valuable property rendered off-limits because of a tiny creature they consider little more than a pest.

“It seems like the moths got more rights than me,” Jerry Goodale, owner of Goodale Construction Company in Oak Bluffs said recently. This spring, Mr. Goodale began clearing some of his land to expand the gravel-mining operation his family has owned since the 1940’s. Though he didn’t realize it, all of his land is designated as priority habitat.

The moths have become a focal point for a small group of abutting landowners concerned about the effect expanding the pit will have on property values and safety.

Oak Bluffs town officials agree Mr. Goodale is not subject to current zoning laws, because state law exempts land use that predates zoning regulations. So a Barrens Dagger Moth, a Melsheimer’s Sack Bearer, or a Coastal Heathland Cutworm may be the biggest factor in determining how Mr. Goodale will continue to earn income from his land.

Mr. Goodale is negotiating with Natural Heritage to create a mitigation plan for his property. Often, the state will issue a conservation management permit that allows clearing or development as long as land elsewhere is permanently preserved. In many cases, for every acre of land developed, Natural Heritage requires two acres of land preserved.

Airport alternative

That was the case in 2005 when the Martha’s Vineyard Airport embarked on the construction of a new ramp. Because the work required paving over land designated priority habitat, the airport sought a conservation management permit from Natural Heritage.

Biologists surveyed the entire airport property. Among the protected plant and animal species found was the Barrens Buckmoth. Natural Heritage required the airport to provide a mitigation plan.

Airport managers agreed to permanently preserve and maintain a separate parcel of land on the opposite side of Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. There was no economic loss, because that land, part of the runway approach, was not identified for development.

“The mitigation area is not one we would ever use for aviation, we wouldn’t put a business park there, it’s close under the approach to the airport,” Sean Flynn, airport manager, said. “When it comes to the Barrens Buckmoth, our experience with that particular species has been on the minimal side. We create habitat for when they are in the caterpillar form, both to lay their eggs on, and to feed on. That has been easy for us to do.”

Mr. Flynn estimates he spends about $10,000 per year on the airport conservation management program. Most of that involves maintaining habitat for protected plants and grasses. Only a small percentage of the cost relates to maintaining moth habitat.

Moth money

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank owns 3,027 acres of land, much of which it manages for public use. Land Bank ecologist Julie Russell regularly traps moths in keeping with an annual inventory of the moth species as part of the state’s mandated management plan.

She estimates she spends about 45 days of her yearly work schedule on moths. At her salary, that amounts to about $11,245 per year. She hired two summer interns to handle the increasing workload. They are each paid about $2,640 for the time they spend on moth duty with Ms. Russell. Supplies, including special light bulbs for moth traps that cost $45 each, amount to $1,000. Once the moths are trapped, they must be sent off-Island for an entomologist to identify and study, at a cost of about $4,000, according to Ms. Russell. The total annual cost to taxpayers is $21,525. That does not include the purchase and maintenance of seven reusable moth traps, which cost about $450 each.

“It’s definitely an added cost to management,” Ms. Russell said. “Depending on what we find, as with any rare species, it can add to the cost. We want to make sure we are not impacting a rare moth.”

In relative terms, she said the moth inventory is less expensive than other elements of land management. “My budget is pretty small, compared to buying a tractor,” Ms. Russell said. “In perspective, it’s not a huge amount.”

Permitting can also be expensive. According to Ms. Russell, there is a current proposal to restore grasslands on the Land Bank’s 109-acre Tiasquam Valley Reservation in Chilmark and West Tisbury. The restoration requires a conservation management permit from Natural Heritage. Because of the large acreage involved, restoring the grasslands bumps the project into a new permit category. The fee jumps from $300 to $4,000. The Land Bank has so far opted not to go forward with that restoration plan.

Adam Moore, executive director of the private Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, knows to the penny what it cost to comply with his state approved conservation management plans. Each of the Foundation’s properties is surveyed once every ten years, so some property is surveyed each year. Last year, the foundation spent $10,484.74 on moth inventories and related expenses. That does not include the permanent staff time involved.

“It costs a fair amount,” Mr. Moore said.

The law requires the monitoring, but it is also part of the conservation group’s purpose.

“We have a mission that incorporates a number of things, and part of that is protecting the natural character of Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Moore said. “We do want to protect rare and endangered species on our property.”

Big questions

By happenstance of geological history, the Cape and Islands are a unique and rare coastal heathland habitat which, it turns out, is perfect for moths. The pitch pine woodlands, scrub oak thickets, and sandplain grasslands provide food and protection.

Here on the Vineyard, where pesticide use has generally been less prevalent, and conservation efforts more in the vanguard of public consciousness, dozens of species of moths live quite happily. Of these, 14 are protected under state law. One of them, the Barrens Metarranthis, is well documented on Martha’s Vineyard, but has not been documented anywhere else on the planet since 1974.

Questions that must be asked

Why are moths worth protecting? Would the Island ecosystem collapse if another species of moth goes extinct? These are questions sometimes asked of Mark Mello, research director of the Lloyd Center for the Environment in Dartmouth, a private group that focuses on research and education. He has spent much of his life studying moths, a creature most people never think about. His vocation sometimes requires some explanation.

“I do a lot of my own collecting,” Mr. Mello said. “Often times, I’m out with a car, parked at some weird place late at night, and when I come back with my equipment there is a police car waiting for me.”

Mr. Mello said most people consider moths or moth caterpillars pests. It is an ironic twist of natural fate.

“Butterflies, they’re really familiar with, and there are only just a little over 100 species of butterfly,” Mr. Mello said. “There are probably 2,000 species of moths.”

Over the past 50 years, the loss of habitat for rare species, mostly the result of development, has thrown a monkey wrench into the ecological equation. There is nothing unusual about extinction, across the tens of thousands, even millions of years a species may exist.

“It’s a natural process, but what we’ve done is dramatically speed it up,” Mr. Mello said. “The question is, can evolution keep pace with extinction.”

He points out that if moth species start disappearing from the Island, it will have a ripple effect, perhaps starting with popular song birds.

“Warblers, sparrows, orioles,” Mr. Mello said, “If you look at what they are feeding their young, it’s caterpillars.”

Mr. Mello cites the explosion of deer populations, as an example of the way human actions sometimes trigger unforeseen consequences. European settlers, and later farmers, hunted the mountain lions and wolves that threatened their livestock, until there were none left in New England. In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern species of mountain lion officially extinct.

Without those major predators, deer populations increased dramatically over the past century. There was a correlating increase in the number of deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, which is now a serious public health problem.

“With any species, you don’t know,” Mr. Mello said. “It’s a question that you can’t answer. Unfortunately it’s often only after the fact that you can say.”