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Butterfly Population Helps Measure Environment's Health

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Butterfly counts are a good way to gauge the health of an environment and help land managers plan for the future.
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Butterfly counts are a good way to gauge the health of an environment and help land managers plan for the future.

Butterfly counts are happening all over the country this summer and have been for decades. They're a pretty good way to gauge the health of an environment and help land managers plan for the future.

About a dozen or so folks are gathered along the Blue Ridge Parkway, some with binoculars and some with cameras, making the same sweep over the same plot of land.

"Because insects are so important and people think of them as creepy crawly and stuff like that, we try to use insects as a teaching tool and butterflies are the segue in that they’re pretty, they're quiet, they don't sting,” says Judy Molnar, who has led this census for most of the 20 years for the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, Va.

We stop at four sites over a 29 mile stretch of the parkway and record the number and type of butterfly we find.

“Here’s the deal,” she says. “When you’re a tallier please be very accurate with your tallys… have mercy on the tallier.”

Nine-year-old Aiden had his grandmother bring him on this trip after he visited a local butterfly garden.

"It interests me how the lifecycle begins and ends," says Aiden.

Today's count has been hindered a bit by some gusty winds and cloudy skies.

"They're solar powered animals, so if they’re there, they're there," Molner says. "It's just like any other scientific endeavor. You take data, and it is what it is. And some years it's clouds and some years it isn't, and you try to look for overall trends over a long period of time. That's why the longer you do it, the more accurate your results get."

Molnar will send the final count to the North American Butterfly Association’s database and to Bob Cherry at the National Park Service, who explains its importance to the big picture.

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