MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — With a pirouette and swoosh of his net, John McLaughlin is after his quarry.
Up here in the rarefied realm of Mount Rainier’s alpine meadows, the mountain, glaciered and magnificent, seems close enough to touch. Velvet green meadows pool with teal lakes. But McLaughlin has eyes only for the lovely denizens of the high country: butterflies, gliding from flower to flower.
Last week, he embarked on an epic trek around Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail, in a solo sampling expedition, logging butterfly species and abundance as he hikes.
An associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, McLaughlin is beginning what he hopes will be a long-term monitoring project of butterfly populations in the 40 different alpine meadows of Mount Rainier National Park, to help track how they are affected by climate change.
For butterflies are more than signatures of summer and color on the wing. They also are known to be among the most sensitive species to climate change, because of their tight relationship to certain plants for food.
As winters warm, trees are expected to invade mountain meadows, shading the alpine meadow plants butterflies depend on for food.
Earlier melt-out of snow could also mean that plants will emerge and be past their tender, palatable peak of nutrition by the time butterfly larvae hatch, putting the plants and the butterflies that depend on them out of synchrony.
“As plants start earlier, butterflies won’t be able to keep up with them,” McLaughlin said.
Butterflies are also creatures of the sun. They must warm their bodies by basking in order to fly and digest their food.
So as trees shade Rainier’s meadows, they will change everything for the sun-loving butterfly.
But to understand the predicted changes ahead – as well as the surprises sure to come – scientists need to build a baseline to document present conditions and populations, McLaughlin said. So he’s footing it around the mountain, a biologist on a mission. You can’t miss him on the trail: He’s the guy with the butterfly net.
McLaughlin pads along like a stalking cat, ever on the lookout for a flash of motion. “You have to go on hyper alert,” McLaughlin said, as he swung his gaze from side to side. “With butterflies, there is no sound. It’s all visual.”
McLaughlin has timed his survey for the peak butterfly season, with midsummer warmth coaxing open the alpine-meadow wildflowers: purple asters, blue lupine, magenta paintbrush. White valerian, pink phlox, orange lilies, and red columbine. White Queen Anne’s lace and the bizarre, Dr. Seuss-like frizz of bear grass in bloom.
Sometimes, McLaughlin can tell a butterfly species just by eyeballing it from the trail. Others require more rigorous methods.
McLaughlin slices the net through the air after a checkerspot butterfly, to determine if it has the precise alignment of black stripes and orange borders that delineate it as the Edith’s variety. Sure enough.
The butterfly pauses on his finger as he sets it free, its antennae glinting in the sun.
Some are too quick for him to count, others too far away. But plenty get logged with his pencil on the data sheets he’s packing around the mountain, along with 60 pounds of gear.
A veteran of backcountry research, McLaughlin has snowshoed the North Cascades looking for wolverines and other carnivores, and counted bird scat in the Elwha. “This is the payoff,” he said, as butterflies cruised the sunbeams for flowers on which to sip nectar.
For all the beauty around him, McLaughlin knows he may be looking at a scene future generations will never see. As the climate warms, the alpine and subalpine meadows at Olympic, North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks are expected to greatly reduce in size, as trees establish where today’s conditions are too harsh for them.
Average temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have increased 1.5 degrees since 1920 and are projected to rise an additional 2 to 4 degrees or more by the end of the century, according to a 2001 University of Washington report on the effects of climate change in Olympic National Park.
The Pacific Northwest is expected to see wetter winters and drier summers, with a slight increase in annual precipitation. The changes are due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels, stoking levels of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, in the atmosphere.
The global reality of climate change hits home even in the remote redoubt of Mount Rainier.
Trees, mostly subalpine firs, have already begun invading subalpine meadows at the park over the course of the 20th century, in association with warmer temperatures, and the trend is expected to increase.
For butterflies, climate change is just one more threat to survival. Outside of the park, loss of habitat has been long under way, as native grasslands and prairies are lost to development and agriculture. In the South Puget Sound area, only 3 percent of the native prairie habitat in which butterflies thrive remains. Weeds have invaded much of what’s left.
But an aggressive conservation and restoration program by the Center for Natural Lands Management has restored some 5,000 acres of prairie in the Olympia area. The organization has worked with a range of other partners and even prison labor to remove weeds; raise populations of endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, and release them to the prairies.
“We are really bringing this habitat back,” said Patrick Dunn, director of the South Sound program for the center.
The Glacial Heritage Preserve near Olympia, once a solid wasteland of Scot’s broom, an invasive weed, has been restored to native camas and grasses, and is aswirl again with butterflies.
To McLaughlin, butterflies are an inspiration, surviving against the odds if given the chance. “They give it their all; it is so amazing.”
He predicts that as meadows change on Mount Rainier, some butterflies will do fine, moving on to other habitat, if they are strong fliers, and able to switch their food sources. But others will probably be unable to adapt. “We will be documenting extinctions,” McLaughlin said.
To him, his survey work is more than just a counting exercise. “We can take what we are learning and apply it to larger society and say, these are the costs of what we have been doing,” McLaughlin said.
“I am scientifically compelled to figure out what is going on. But there is also a moral component, of bearing witness.”
McLaughlin figures his mountain-meadow survey will take about a week and a half. He’ll hike more than 90 miles, with an elevation gain of more than 23,000 feet as he rounds the entire trail, the equivalent of climbing Mount Rainier nearly twice.
No problem for McLaughlin, who moves up steep trails with the steady power of a locomotive. He seems powered by not only strength, but his joy in being in his outdoor laboratory.
“Being in nature reminds me of what is important in life, and why it is so much fun to get up every day,” McLaughlin said. “We live in a world that is changing before our eyes. That’s worth taking notice of.”