Butterfly paradise lost?

Publisher: San Mateo County Times
Reporter: Emily Francher

SAN BRUNO MOUNTAIN -- In 1983, local officials adopted a plan to save the fragile habitat of the endangered butterflies on San Bruno Mountain.

Two decades later, the butterflies are just as threatened as ever -- a fact not lost on officials who are in the middle of crafting an update, or amendment, aimed at strengthening the habitat conservation plan.

"If you have limited money, fighting nature is not easy," said Mike Wilson, a trustee who oversees the conservation plan for the mountain, along with other city and county representatives.

There's a growing consensus that the shortage of funds, conflicting science, and evolution of the mountain from grasslands to coastal scrub are taking a toll on the butterflies' habitat.

Everyone seems to agree on the problems, but no one seems to have a solution.

Home to several endangered butterfly species, San Bruno Mountain was the first place in the United States to adopt a habitat conservation plan (HCP), in the wake of the federal Endangered Species Act. The plan allows for developers to build on the mountain in exchange for preserving an equal amount of land as open space.

Successful at saving the majority of the mountain's 3,600 acres as open space, the plan nevertheless has failed to significantly preserve the grasslands where the butterflies' host plants thrive.

"What we're trying to do may be impossible," County Manager John Maltbie, a trustee of the mountain. "After the HCP expires, it could be you'll see a natural evolution of the mountain and an extinction of the species."

The HCP will expire in about a decade, but in the meantime, all agree it's underfunded, with about $120,000 a year from homeowners and developers in the area. That money goes to weed out invasive plants, replant native species, monitor the butterfly population and other efforts.

More money could come from grants, a special assessment on the ballot or from an endowment from a developer. Brisbane City Manager Clay Holstine said he expects Brookfield Homes to approach the City Council in the next two months with a plan to build fewer than 168 homes on the mountain, as well as provide some money for an endowment -- perhaps a few million dollars.

"I think the next five years will be critical," said Holstine. "We've go to put more resources into preserving the habitat."

One idea to solve the constant money crisis is to transfer the mountain to the federal government, perhaps the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but some say budget constraints may make that idea unrealistic.

Meanwhile, the environmental review of a major amendment to the HCP will begin next week. The amendment itself must be finished by next July. As part of the revision, the endangered Callippe Silverspot and the threatened Bay Checkerspot butterflies would be added to the plan, which already includes the Mission Blue and San Bruno Elfin. The revision would also incorporate a few endangered plant species and look at butterfly-counting techniques, grazing and controlled burns, and weed-control plans.

As part of the process, a public meeting on the environmental review of the amendment will be held July 29 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m at 475 Mission Blue Drive, and from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 250 Visitacion Ave.

Staff writer Emily Fancher can be reached at (650) 348-4340 or efancher@sanmateocountytimes.com .