FORT BRAGG, N.C. — In the unlikely setting of the world’s most populated military installation, amid all the regimented chaos, you’ll find the Endangered Species Act at work.
There, as a 400-pound explosive resounds in the distance, a tiny St. Francis Satyr butterfly flits among the splotchy leaves, ready to lay as many as 100 eggs. At one point, this brown and frankly dull-looking butterfly could be found in only one place on Earth: Fort Bragg’s artillery range.
Now, thanks in great measure to the 46-year-old federal act, they are found in eight more places — though all of them are on other parts of the Army base. And if all goes well, biologists will have just seeded habitat No. 10.
One of Earth’s rarest butterfly species, there are maybe 3,000 St. Francis Satyrs. There are never going to be enough of them to get off the endangered list, but they’re not about to go extinct either. They are permanent patients of the bureaucratic conservation hospital ward.
In some ways, the tiny butterfly is an ideal example of the more than 1,600 U.S. species that have been protected by the Endangered Species Act. Alive, but not exactly doing that well.
To some experts, just having these creatures around means the 46-year-old law has done its job. More than 99.2% of the species protected by the act survive, The Associated Press has found. Only 11 species were declared extinct.
On the other hand, only 39 U.S. species — about 2% of the overall number— have made it off the endangered list because of recovery, including bald eagles and American alligators.
“Species will remain in the Endangered Species Act hospital indefinitely. And I don’t think that’s a failure of the Endangered Species Act itself,” says Jake Li, director for biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center in Washington.
The Endangered Species Act “is the safety net of last resort,” says Gary Frazer, assistant director of ecological services at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the law. “We list species after all other vehicles of protection have failed.”
The 1973 law, passed unanimously in the Senate, was designed to prevent species from going extinct and to protect their habitat. Under the law, it is unlawful to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect” endangered animals and plants, and it also forbids the elimination of their habitats.
Another species found at Fort Bragg — the red-cockaded woodpecker — is a case of success but at a cost of $408 million over 19 years.
The woodpeckers live only in longleaf pines, which have been disappearing across the Southeast for more than a century, due to development and suppression of fires.
In the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to save the woodpecker and their trees set off a backlash among landowners who worried about interference on their private property. Wildlife officials were even shot at.
Army officials weren’t happy either.
“We couldn’t maneuver. We couldn’t shoot because they were afraid the bird was going to blink out and go into extinction,” says former top Fort Bragg planning official Mike Lynch.
By the 1980s, the red cockaded woodpecker population was below 10,000 nationwide. Now, they’re well past 15,000 just on military bases.
After failed efforts, biologists and bureaucrats changed their approach.
Instead of prohibiting work on land the woodpecker needs, Fish and Wildlife Service officials allowed landowners to make some changes as long as they generally didn’t hurt the bird. The Army set fires to regularly burn scrub.
The result? When Fort Bragg Endangered Species Branch Chief Jackie Britcher started, in 1983, there were fewer than 300 woodpecker families on Fort Bragg. Now she counts 453 families.
“Something is going right,” she says.
The Army has better land to maneuver in and the community is taking pride in the woodpecker, Lynch says.
From 1998 to 2016, the federal government tallied $20.5 billion in spending on individual species on the endangered list. That’s based on an annual per-species spending report that the Fish and Wildlife Service sends to Congress, but that tally is not comprehensive.
Seven species, mostly fish, ate up more than half of the money expended under the act, according to the annual accounting figures.
About $3 million was spent to save the St. Francis Satyr butterfly.
Nick Haddad, a Michigan State University butterfly biologist and St. Francis expert, regularly visits the artillery range.
He expected a moonscape, but found beauty.
Because no one was venturing into the woods there, no one was dismantling beaver dams or snuffing out fires. Aside from munition fragments, the landscape was much like North Carolina before it was altered by humans.
The picky butterfly needs a touch of chaos in its habitat. It requires water, but not a lot. It thrives on fire to burn away overgrown plants, but not too much.
Now, Haddad and his team replicate those conditions elsewhere on base, and they watch the butterfly population grow.
After years of criticisms from conservatives that the endangered species program is too cumbersome for industry and landowners, President Donald Trump’s administration has enacted 33 different reforms.
Among them: a change in the rules for species that are “threatened,” the classification just below endangered. Instead of mandating, in most cases, that they get the same protection as endangered species, the new rules allow for variations.
That is better management, says the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Frazer, adding, “It allows us to regulate really only those things that are important to conservation.”
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity, characterizes the regulations as “a disaster.”
While scientists across the globe warn of the coming extinction of a million species in the decades ahead, Nick Haddad is determined that the St. Francis Satyr butterfly won’t be one of them.
“This is the thing that gives me hope,” Haddad says. “That’s where the Endangered Species Act had an impact.”
AP data journalist Nicky Forster contributed to this report from New York.