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Wildfires destroy homes and take lives, and they also put all sorts of animals at risk. A fire burning in a mountain range west of Las Vegas is threatening a rare butterfly. The fire is dying down, but as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, it may be weeks before experts can find out how the butterflies have fared.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: The Mount Charleston blue butterfly is a tiny thing, about the size of a quarter. It's only found in a couple small patches high in the mountains.
COREY KALLSTROM: It's this mountain island in the middle of the desert that's been isolated for about the last 10,000 years.
SHOGREN: Corey Kallstrom is an endangered species expert for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
KALLSTROM: Because of that isolation, unique species have developed in that area.
SHOGREN: Like the Mount Charleston blue butterfly. Kallstrom says the large wildfire that's been burning in those Nevada mountains for most of this month came close to the main area where this tiny butterfly has been spotted in recent years. He's worried about their fate.
KALLSTROM: I'm hopeful that there has been some that have survived.
SHOGREN: The butterfly's key habitat is in rugged terrain. Kallstrom has been trained in forest fire safety, but even he's not allowed to check on the butterfly yet.
KALLSTROM: It's too unsafe to put anyone up there on the ground to look. We'll just have to wait and see when we get up there.
SHOGREN: Butterfly expert Dan Rubinoff has been following the story of the Mount Charleston blue butterfly from afar. He's a professor at the University of Hawaii. Fires used to make open areas on Mount Charleston. The kinds of plants the butterfly feeds on can't grow in forests.
DAN RUBINOFF: It's decades of fire suppression in the Mount Charleston area that have caused the trees to overgrow places where this butterfly used to occur, which has boxed it into a few canyons where it's still having on.
SHOGREN: Rubinoff says that's the sad irony to the Mount Charleston blue story.
RUBINOFF: You have a species that has evolved to be dependent on fire that may actually be exterminated by fire.
SHOGREN: But Rubinoff says this story could end in a much happier way.
RUBINOFF: If this fire didn't wipe out the butterfly, the fire will actually provide a lot more habitat for the milk vetch that the butterfly needs in the future. So if the butterfly is still around, that fire might actually end up being a net gain for the butterfly.
SHOGREN: The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service says in the past, fires have helped endangered plants, fish and insects. A spokesperson says the agency couldn't come up with any species that have gone extinct because of fires. But a bird that lived on an island off California, the Santa Barbara song sparrow, was never seen after an intense fire in 1959. Like the Mount Charleston blue butterfly, much of its historic habitat had already been eliminated. Experts like Rubinoff say that's one reason we may start to hear about species going extinct due to wildfires.
RUBINOFF: I think that's going to be something that comes more and more now as species ranges are restricted more and more.
SHOGREN: Another reason is climate change. It's making wildfires more common or intense. It's also putting other stresses on rare animals and plants. Isolated animals, like the Nevada butterfly, are especially vulnerable. Rubinoff says they're like the canaries in a coalmine.
RUBINOFF: This butterfly is telling us things are changing in a way that they have not changed before. And if we can save things like the Mount Charleston blue, in the process of saving them, we may be saving ourselves.
SHOGREN: Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
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