Butterfly populations are declining across the American West as the climate changes, UNR researchers find

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Hundreds of butterfly species are slowly vanishing from the American West as the landscape becomes warmer and drier, according to a sobering report published in Science last week.

The report, led by researchers at UNR and relying on population data collected over four decades, included more than 450 species of butterflies. The study estimated a 1.6 percent annual decline in butterflies, a rate that is in line with reductions of other insects across the globe. Although insect declines have been observed in developed areas, the study is significant because it demonstrated declines even in untouched landscapes.

“Habitat loss is always the most important thing,” said Matt Forister, a UNR biology professor and the lead author on the report. “But the effect that we see of climate change out there in the open spaces is impressively strong. It’s stronger than we would have expected.”

An annual decline of 1.6 percent might not sound like a lot, but the value represents a significant population loss for species that remain vulnerable to temperatures that are only expected to increase. Forister noted that the rate compounds each year. He calculated that if you went to a location 20 years ago and saw 1,000 butterflies in a day, the rate would predict 725 butterflies now.

“We hope this study adds more motivation to fight climate change wherever possible,” he said.

For scientists studying insects, butterfly populations can provide valuable insights into understanding how populations are changing, Forister said. Researchers and citizen scientists can often have an easier time counting butterflies, compared to other insect species. 

The data analyzed in the study included observations from researchers like Forister who visited the same areas regularly, observations from volunteers and records from nature enthusiasts. 

Insects are small critters, but they play a key role in many ecosystems. Caterpillars, butterflies and moths are large consumers of plants and often provide food for other species, Forister said.

“It’s really almost impossible to imagine ecosystems without these animals in them,” he said. “But we are finding out how they are going to change with fewer of them.”

While insects still face threats from human development and pesticides, the study highlights the fact that warming temperatures can affect all ecosystems, even in largely undisturbed areas.

“If protecting open lands is not enough to protect insects, then that means we need to think close to home,” Forister said. “And it raises the importance of people making smart choices about their backyards and city parks and edges of agriculture and places we have control over.”

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


A big energy bill is coming: My colleague Riley Snyder reports on state lawmakers preparing a wide-ranging energy bill that will focus primarily on the transportation sector, which makes up the largest share of the state’s carbon emissions. The legislation could require NV Energy to invest more than $100 million in electric charging stations over the next three years. It would also include language making it the state’s policy to increase transmission capacity. 

  • Last week, InsideClimateNews’ Dan Gearino took an in-depth look at Warren Buffett’s energy empire, which includes NV Energy. He writes that Buffett’s “holdings are so large and in so many sectors that he is simultaneously financing the transition to clean energy while continuing to have deep connections to fossil fuel industries.” Buffett focused on transmission in his shareholder letter, mentioning NV Energy’s Greenlink project.  

More on the Blockchains proposal: Earlier this week, I interviewed Blockchains LLC CEO Jeff Berns with my colleague Joey Lovato in a special edition of our IndyMatters podcast. We asked Berns about his effort lobbying the Legislature for a bill that would allow wealthy developers with an innovative technology and large land holdings to break away from existing counties and create a new local government, known as an “Innovation Zone.” Here are a couple takeaways:

  • Blockchains LLC hired Jason King, who retired as Nevada’s top water regulator in 2019, as a consultant to help the company navigate its issues developing water rights.
  • Berns said the company was looking for water in six different areas in multiple counties. Earlier this year, we reported on its acquisition of water rights in rural Washoe County.


A Sloan Canyon pipeline: The Southern Nevada Water Authority is considering a pipeline that would tunnel under the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Blake Apgar writes that “the project is part of an effort to increase the reliability and capacity of the water system in the southern valley while also creating backup infrastructure to an existing water line.” It could help serve a future Clark County airport in the Ivanpah Valley. 

Seeping growth: The city of Fernley is concerned about its long-term water supply as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation looks to line the Truckee River canal. Right now, the Truckee Canal, one of the earliest federal water projects, is unlined. That means water can seep out of the side of the canal and into the groundwater. Fernley relies on that groundwater, or seepage, for its water supply. If the canal is lined, the water could go away. In a story by the Reno Gazette Journal’s Amy Alonzo, Fernley’s city manager asked: “How can you just take away the water we’ve been dependent on for so many years?” The answer is this: Neither the federal government nor the state recognizes the seepage as a valid water right. I’ll be writing more on this at some point.

Reno water lawsuit goes to federal court: “Dozens of Lemmon Valley residents involved in a years-long legal battle with the city of Reno over the flooding of their homes in 2017 are moving to federal court in a complex case that could cost the city millions of dollars,” Kristen Oh writes in the Reno Gazette Journal.

Group petitions federal government to protect imperiled fish: The Center for Biological Diversity is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Fish Lake Valley tui chub under the Endangered Species Act. The conservation group told federal wildlife regulators that the fish species is threatened by groundwater over-pumping and alterations to its natural habitat.

Nevada and mining investment: This news came out a few weeks ago, but I tweeted it last week and thought I should share it in the newsletter, too. A recent survey of mining companies found that Nevada is now the most attractive region for investors, replacing Western Australia. The survey, which was reported by Mining.com, is based on geologic potential and an index “that measures the effects of government policy on attitudes toward exploration investment.”

Nevada Gold Mines negotiates new cooperative agreement: Since last year, Nevada Gold Mines, the state’s largest gold mining company, has been updating a cooperative agreement with Indigenous communities in the large area of Nevada where their mines operate. Several tribes have expressed concerns about their relationship with the company, a joint-venture that formed in 2019. Suzanne Featherston, a reporter for the Elko Daily Free Press, has more.

One other thing: Last week, I reported on Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s introduction of the Clark County Lands Bill, which allows for new development on public land around Las Vegas while conserving about 2 million acres. In the story, I wrote that the land also opens up public land around Indian Springs, Laughlin and the Moapa Valley. A point of clarification: Federal land managers, through an administrative process, had already identified those lands for future development. What the bill changes is that it includes those lands in a program known as SNPLMA. If those lands are sold, under the bill, they would help generate revenue that returns to Nevada.


A coalition opposing the Mormon Mesa solar project: “A motley coalition that includes skydivers, off-roaders, and art aficionados has risen up to oppose a proposed solar-power facility in southern Nevada," reporter Jonathan Thompson writes in his Land Desk newsletter.

Using drones to develop geothermal power: “Geophysics faculty and graduate students from the University of Nevada, Reno, announce new exploration for blind geothermal systems with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) magnetometry.” (via sUAS News)


New rules for making energy efficiency codes: This could be a big setback for efforts to tackle climate change. “The private consortium that oversees the model building codes for much of the United States and parts of the Caribbean and Latin America on Thursday stripped local governments of their right to vote on future energy-efficiency codes,” Alexander C. Kaufman reported in the Huffington Post

Oil and gas legislation: Sen. Jacky Rosen and Cortez Masto introduced legislation over the past week that’s aimed at reforming oil and gas drilling on public land. The bills come as the Biden administration reviews the federal oil and gas leasing program, which accounts for a sizable portion of U.S. emissions. More on the legislation in a story I wrote on Wednesday.

Climate change in the rescue bill: “In little-noticed ways, the rescue bill is going to reshape several areas of American climate policy,” Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic. “It will revive a number of crucial, pandemic-hammered institutions central to the country’s climate response. More important, it shows how the prevailing atmosphere of American governance has shifted.”