Oct 15, 2021

Of Bombs and Butterflies

Ecologist Nick Haddad was sitting in his new office at North Carolina State University when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was... The U.S. Army. The Army folks told him, “Look, there’s this endangered butterfly on our base at Fort Bragg, and it’s the only place in the world that it exists. But it’s about to go extinct. And we need your help to save it.” 

Nick had never even heard of the butterfly. In fact, he barely knew much about butterflies in general. Nonetheless, he said yes to Uncle Sam. “How hard could it be?” he wondered. Turns out, pretty hard. He'd have to trick beavers, dodge bombs, and rethink the fundamental nature of life and death in order to rescue this butterfly before it disappeared forever.

**CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Army moved a beaver; in truth, they killed it.  We also overstated the current tally of St Francis Satyrs off range; they are around 200, not 800. The audio has been adjusted to reflect these changes.**

This episode was reported by Latif Nasser, and produced by Rachael Cusick. Original music by Jeremy Bloom. Mixing by Arianne Wack.

Special thanks to: Snooki Puli, Cita Escalano, Jeffrey Glassberg, Margot Williams, Mark Romyn, Elizabeth Long, Laura Verhegge, the Public Affairs and Endangered Species Branches at Fort Bragg.

Want to learn more? you can ...
... read Nick Haddad’s book The Last Butterflies: A Scientist’s Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature
... take a peek at Thomas Kral’s original 1989 paper about the Saint Francis Satyr
... visit Fort Bragg's webpage about the Saint Francis Satyr

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JAD ABUMRAD: I'll start. No, no. I think you should start because this is your story.

LATIF NASSER: Okay. I'm Latif.

JAD: I'm Jad.

LATIF: This is Radiolab, and today, we've been working on this story a long time, and it feels kind of disproportional because it's, like—it's a big story about a little thing.

JAD: Yeah. I'm gonna pretend I don't know what the little thing of which you speak. What is this story that you're about to tell me, and about what?

LATIF: This story is about a tiny, fragile critter doing its best to survive in a hostile world, and whether we should help it or let it die.

JAD: Damn. Okay.

LATIF: Okay, so let us begin with ...

NICK HADDAD: Okay, numbers are running at the bottom. And I'll just use this like a phone.

LATIF: Nick Haddad.

LATIF: So maybe let's just start with a phone call, I think, right?

NICK HADDAD: Yeah, start from the beginning.

LATIF: Early 2000s, Nick is sitting in his office.

NICK HADDAD: North Carolina State University.

LATIF: This was actually his first job as a professor.

NICK HADDAD: Yeah, I was a professor in zoology.

LATIF: Still pretty new. Young guy. And one day, he's sitting in his new office when the phone rings. And on the other end of the line is someone from Fort Bragg, the US army base. He was like, "Why the hell is the army calling me?"

NICK HADDAD: Yeah, when I got a call from the army, I for sure furrowed my brow.

LATIF: The first thing the army guy says is, "Look, there's this endangered butterfly on our base."

NICK HADDAD: The thing's on the precipice of extinction.

LATIF: "And we need your help to save it."

JAD: Why would the army care about this one butterfly?

LATIF: Well, because this butterfly, you can't find it anywhere else. Fort Bragg is its only known habitat on planet Earth. Since it's listed as endangered, the military has to save it. Like, that's the law, that's the Endangered Species Act. Which is why they're calling someone like Nick Haddad to try to help them save it. Now Nick, he's an ecologist, he's a conservationist, but ...

NICK HADDAD: I'm not an entomologist. I don't know much about other insect species.

LATIF: Technically, he's not even a butterfly guy.

LATIF: Had you heard of that butterfly before?

NICK HADDAD: I had never heard of the butterfly before. At the time, I probably could have named one rare butterfly. Everything else was, you know, just common.

LATIF: So he looks this thing up, you know, just to see what he's working with. And the name of this butterfly is the Saint Francis' satyr.

JAD: Is that a 'D'—seder?

LATIF: S-A-T-Y-R. Satyr.

JAD: Oh! That sounds like a mythological creature.

LATIF: I know, right? It does.

JAD: Like a half a horse and a gargoyle or something.

LATIF: As opposed to, like, a Passover dinner.

JAD: Yeah, okay. [laughs]

LATIF: Okay, so it was first discovered and identified in 1983. At the time, it was estimated there were less than 100 butterflies left.

JAD: Wow!

LATIF: And ...

NICK HADDAD: This butterfly had a feature that just played right into my hands. They're like perfectly timed to an academic year.

LATIF: [laughs]

LATIF: He was like, you know what? After I'm done teaching for the year, I'll just drive down there, a few days in the summer. Maybe it'll take a summer or two. It sounds like a fun little puzzle.

NICK HADDAD: So it was a no-brainer for me.

LATIF: No big deal. He says yes.

NICK HADDAD: I was confident that, yeah, I was gonna be the person to set it on the right path.

LATIF: Totally.

NICK HADDAD: I mean there was no question to me that I was the person who could oversee its recovery. I will say there, I'm a naive optimist.

LATIF: Naive because it's almost 20 years later, he is still trying to save this little flappy creature. He often loses sleep over it. And even though this little butterfly is about the size of a quarter, this thing has entirely upturned his idea of life and death and creation. And destruction.

JAD: [laughs] Okay.

LATIF: 2002, Nick goes to Fort Bragg. To start off, he just needs to figure out, like, how many of these Saint Francis' satyr butterflies are there on Fort Bragg. So he and his students, they basically, like, trace along 40 miles of creeks and streams.

NICK HADDAD: And the first year we determined the population size to be about 1,000 butterflies outside the artillery ranges.

JAD: Wow.

LATIF: He's like, "Huh. Oh, wow! This is like, actually not as bad as I thought.

NICK HADDAD: A thousand. I dunno. Does that seem like a lot or a few?

LATIF: Pretty good.

NICK HADDAD: Well, it turns out it's just almost nothing. I mean, if you rounded up a thousand butterflies and could just hold them in your hands, you could smash them down to the size of, I don't know, a softball or something.

LATIF: So, not great. But he's like, that's still more butterflies than the hundred that that original paper said that there were. This thing seems to be surviving on its own. Let's just wait, see what happens, come back next summer.

NICK HADDAD: My approach to conservation was literally hands off.

LATIF: So they come back the next year, and count is slightly higher. They're like, okay, great. But then two years later, things started going, like, really badly.

NICK HADDAD: And then it was down and down from there.

LATIF: And they find out that one kind of little thriving, vibrant population they had, it's gone. So they're like, okay, what—what just happened? And Nick does a little detective work, and what he figures out is it's due to flooding.

NICK HADDAD: Was flooded over by a beaver.

LATIF: There are beavers at the base. Beavers build dams. Dams cause water to build up, and then that water is enough to drown the caterpillars who are eating the grass-like sedges. So obviously, no caterpillars, no butterflies. So Nick pieces that together, but pretty quickly another population goes down.

NICK HADDAD: And that one was because of a catastrophic wildfire that just scorched everything.

LATIF: These fires often get started because of the artillery range. And as you can imagine, these little paper-thin wings of a butterfly do not do well with fire.

NICK HADDAD: So here I was just keeping a hands-off approach to a butterfly's habitat, and the butterfly started to decline.

LATIF: So he's thinking, "Okay. So my hands-off approach didn't work. We need to do something. Maybe I have to go in and protect it. And seems pretty clear, the problems are flooding and fire. So let's just remove those problems."

JAD: So how does he get rid of those problems?

LATIF: Well, the fire is a bit harder to manage because it's more unpredictable. But the beavers, he was like, "Yeah, we need to do something about these beavers. There's truly only one person fit for the job."

BRIAN BALL: In my office, I became where I was kind of the beaver liaison for our office.

LATIF: Brian Ball, a biologist who works with the Army.

BRIAN BALL: So, like, when there's any kind of beaver issues ...

LATIF: He's your guy. So Brian brings out the big guns.

BRIAN BALL: A beaver deceiver. Basically a pipe through the dam.

JAD: [laughs]

LATIF: And a beaver deceiver is—what they do is they take the dam and then they basically, like, just punch a hole and then put a pipe through the dam so that, like, the water is still going through, but the beaver doesn't realize. So it's a beaver deceiver. But it did not always deceive the beaver.

BRIAN BALL: And we destroyed the dam four or five times.

LATIF: They'd basically go in with their hands and just break up these dams. That didn't always work.

BRIAN BALL: So I put fences up, I think, four times.

LATIF: Still, the enemy would not give up. So in one case they actually evicted the beaver.

BRIAN BALL: I guess you could put it that way, yeah.

LATIF: They would, like, take the beavers and they would, like, put them in the back of a truck and take them somewhere else. And then just be like, "Okay, here's your new home." Once the beavers' suitcase of twigs were unpacked in the new home, no more disturbances. Nick thought, "Okay, now the butterflies will come back." But then ...

NICK HADDAD: I called to get reports from my graduate students to get, you know, daily updates on were these butterflies in the places we'd hoped? Were there abundances high enough to sustain the population? And the answer to both of those questions is: no, the butterflies just disappeared.

LATIF: He can't even tell why anymore.

NICK HADDAD: Another population was lost. The next year, another, the next year, another.

LATIF: There are years where he goes out to places where butterflies were thriving the last time he was there, and now he doesn't even see a single one.

BRIAN BALL: It was very surreal.

NICK HADDAD: I mean, it was almost in an instant.

BRIAN BALL: It was a—it was mind-blowing how quick it happened.

LATIF: So they went from, in the early '80s, a hundred butterflies, to the early 2000s, 1,700 butterflies, to now in 2011, 75 butterflies.

NICK HADDAD: What had we done wrong?

LATIF: Nick himself is in really bad shape. Like, the way he talks about it, he feels guilty.

NICK HADDAD: I mean, it was frustrating, it was humiliating. Here I am the conservation biologist, the scientist, thinking, "I'm the one. I'm the savior for this butterfly." And yet exactly the opposite is happening.

LATIF: Like, imagine you're inheriting a thing at its best, and then you watch it and it slowly is slipping out of your fingers, and then it gets to its worst it's ever been.

BRIAN BALL: Yeah, absolutely, it weighs on you. If we mess this up, you know, this thing could disappear forever.

NICK HADDAD: Well, that's it for the butterfly.

LATIF: It's like, "Oh, if this now goes down, it's me that's let planet Earth down on this.

NICK HADDAD: This butterfly was going extinct on my watch.

JAD: So then what do you do?

LATIF: So what I haven't told you is that Nick had a sort of Hail Mary shot, which is that back in the early '90s, long before Nick actually got there, some army people had seen these butterflies on an artillery testing range, but that area was closed off to civilians. Nick had never been allowed access.

JAD: Why was it closed off to him?

LATIF: These are very serious places. Like, these are deadly places. At some points in the year, bombs are going off 24/7. Like, just to give you a sense, like, there was an explosion where soldiers, multiple soldiers, special ops soldiers, three of them went to the hospital, one of them died. And while Nick was working there, they had had an incident where a civilian had snuck onto the base, was trying to salvage, like, scrap metal from old bombs.

NICK HADDAD: And blew himself up and died.

LATIF: Oh my God!

NICK HADDAD: Given that circumstance, of course, the military had to clamp down.

LATIF: So very dangerous place. And he doesn't even know if the butterflies are still there. Like, they were last seen decades ago. But Nick and his biologist colleagues feel like this is just crucial for the survival of the species, so, he's like, "I have to go find out." They beg the folks in charge of the base to let them onto the artillery range. And the powers that be agree.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: So I arrived in North Carolina last night, and ...]

LATIF: Now the tape you're hearing, Nick recorded it back in 2020.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Okay. Just went through badging. No problem. That was quick.]

LATIF: And that first time, he was allowed to go on the condition that he go with ...

TRACY JOHNSON: Okay. So I call it sounds of freedom. You have the sounds of freedom going off 24 hours a day here.

LATIF: ... Tracy Johnson.

TRACY JOHNSON: My expertise in the military was, you know, ordnance.

BRIAN BALL: They're called EOD—Explosive Ordnance Disposal.

LATIF: What is ordnance?

TRACY JOHNSON: Bombs, hand grenades, rockets. Pretty much anything that goes boom. That's how I was in a situation where I was able to meet Nick.

LATIF: And so for the first time ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: So here I go.]

LATIF: Nick is allowed to enter the artillery range.

NICK HADDAD: The first trip, I remember it in detail. My eyes were wide open.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: And I see, hmm, 150 soldiers.]

NICK HADDAD: Lines of soldiers were pointing their guns. Soldiers are being parachuted out of planes onto landing fields.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Well, thankful I'm not that guy, and all we have to carry are butterfly nets.]

NICK HADDAD: The thing you really notice is the explosions.

BRIAN BALL: Bomb areas continuously bombed or, you know, artillery.

TRACY JOHNSON: Absolutely.

NICK HADDAD: Constant detonation of ordnance.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Stop here. Waiting for confirmation that we can go into the range.]

LATIF: They have to wait for a green light to tell them that live fire has ceased. So eventually, green light turns on.

TRACY JOHNSON: And I'm like, all right, let's go.

NICK HADDAD: We head out to look at what the butterfly's habitat looked like.

LATIF: And they start walking.

TRACY JOHNSON: They follow me because I got to go first and make sure that the path is clear, that there's nothing dangerous that they're gonna step on.

LATIF: First Tracy, then Brian, who's pointing the way. And then ...


LATIF: Nick. And he's sort of—in his head, he's picturing—what he told me he was picturing was this, like, pockmarked moonscape. Like, you know the image they have in, like, every high school history textbook of, like, World War I trench warfare? Bombed out trees and, like, just dirt and mud and, like, holes in the ground, like, that kind of thing?

JAD: Yeah.

LATIF: So that's what he's expecting.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Oh, shoot. Just stepped over a big ordnance.]

NICK HADDAD: I'm just looking on the ground for things that I might step on that I shouldn't be stepping on.

LATIF: And there's definitely some of that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: That one makes me nervous.]

NICK HADDAD: I walked with ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Brian Ball: They're pretty sensitive.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Wait, what do you mean sensitive?]

NICK HADDAD: Trepidation.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Well, it's not unusual for me to stumble into the water.]


LATIF: But as they kept moving deeper and deeper into the range ...

TRACY JOHNSON: We ended up in the swampy area.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Oh, made it. [laughs]]

NICK HADDAD: It's going through just a dense thicket of shrubs and vines. I'm getting scratched up by thorns and ...

LATIF: You know, the growth gets thicker in places.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Poison sumac just ended up on my face.]

LATIF: There are more animals creeping around.

TRACY JOHNSON: I seen the biggest snake I think I've ever seen in my life that day. Huge cottonmouth. A fat boy. Yeah, he's big.

BRIAN BALL: I've always been kind of a snake, frog, salamander type person. And so I'm the one that's always looking for snakes.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Oh sh—! Oh, I though it was a—stepped on one end of a log.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Brian Ball: Well, everybody's a little jumpy out here today.]

NICK HADDAD: And so we break through, crash through the vines.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: This is pretty open and wet.]

LATIF: Nick says they came to these pockets where ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Sedge abundance is picking up.]

NICK HADDAD: Honestly, my mouth was agape at that. It was so beautiful.

JAD: What?

LATIF: It is a healthy wetland forest.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Do you know what this flower is, Brian?]

LATIF: All kinds of flowers.

BRIAN BALL: Hundreds of orchids.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Beautiful purple flower.]

LATIF: There are all these birds.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Oh, Bobwhites in the background.]

BRIAN BALL: Bobwhite quail.

NICK HADDAD: Red-cockaded woodpecker.

BRIAN BALL: It's like a symphony going on, for sure.

LATIF: It is a garden of Eden.

NICK HADDAD: It really was. I mean, it was ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Ooh! Ooh!]

NICK HADDAD: Incredible.

LATIF: So he's walking through this area ...

TRACY JOHNSON: My head's, you know, watching the ground, and his head's up in the air, you know, looking for the butterflies.

LATIF: And pretty quickly, Tracy, she goes ...

TRACY JOHNSON: Oh, wow! What do we have here?

LATIF: "Oh, is that one of your butterflies?"

NICK HADDAD: This little brown butterfly sitting on the underside of a leaf.

LATIF: And he's like, "Yeah. Yeah, that's one of my butterflies."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Let's see if it goes back to this flower.]

NICK HADDAD: Within a matter of seconds, I saw a Saint Francis' satyr.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Oh. Flying again.]

NICK HADDAD: And then I walked on for, you know, a few more feet.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Now here it is, here it is. Can we—oh, there it is, right below you.]

NICK HADDAD: And there was another and another and another.

LATIF: So there were 60 off the artillery range that he was, like, preciously protecting and, like, holding onto as the last gasp of the species. And in 15 minutes, he just saw 50 of them.

NICK HADDAD: There they were.

LATIF: These things are thriving here. Like, they're thriving!

NICK HADDAD: I was exhilarated. I mean, that's the only feeling I had is, well, exhilaration and relief. They appeared to be safe. Something that was happening inside the artillery ranges actually did a better job of managing habitats for the butterfly than whatever we were doing outside the artillery ranges.

BRIAN BALL: Like, why are they thriving here and not out there? What's different?

NICK HADDAD: What caused that dynamic?

LATIF: Like, the butterflies are cheating on him or something. Like, he's like, "What do they have that I don't? Like, what was the artillery range giving to you that I was not?" And what he starts to realize is basically that, like, everything he knows about the Saint Francis' satyr, everything he knows about conservation, everything he knows about life and death is wrong.

NICK HADDAD: So first, there's basically no people to muck with the ecosystem.

TRACY JOHNSON: Fort Bragg has got a lot of areas that aren't disturbed and haven't been disturbed for hundreds of years, you know, thanks to the ranges. And that creates that little pocket of opportunities.

NICK HADDAD: Because there's no people, they leave beaver. So beavers, they create dams.

LATIF: Those dams, they do flood, they do drown those caterpillars, but they also do other things.

NICK HADDAD: Beaver abandon the dams. And it's behind those abandoned dams where sediments have accumulated that provide rich soil that then plants can grow into, including—and especially—the food for the butterfly. It's a big buffet.

LATIF: But actually, the even more surprising thing is when it comes to the bombs, the butterflies weren't surviving on the testing ranges despite the bombs, they were surviving because of the bombs.

JAD: How is that possible? These are like the tiniest, flimsiest little creatures in the world.

NICK HADDAD: So the Saint Francis' satyr, they live in an environment in North Carolina that helps plants grow quickly. And so these grassy wetlands aren't grassy wetlands for long. Soon vines grow in, then shrubs grow in, then trees grow in. And those things, well, they out-compete the grasses.

LATIF: So the explosions, the gunfire ...

NICK HADDAD: I understand machine guns are actually very good at setting fires.

LATIF: And those fires kill butterflies, but they also thin out the trees. So thinner trees means more sunshine. More sunshine and more space for grassy sedges to grow. More grassy sedges means more food for caterpillars. More food for caterpillars means more caterpillars means more butterflies.

NICK HADDAD: Ordnance, they don't create a less-natural world. They create a more natural world.

JAD: Wow! So the thing that he thought he needed to protect the butterflies from are actually the thing that's making them stronger.

LATIF: Exactly.

NICK HADDAD: And so this is where I had my biggest epiphany. Going into the artillery range, what I realized is my perception of butterflies as fragile was totally misplaced.

LATIF: And like this whole time, he was exactly 180 degrees wrong. So he basically learns from this. He's like, "Okay. Let's fuckin' go!" I don't love saying "fucking," but it just—it does work here.

NICK HADDAD: I basically went from no disturbance in our sites to all disturbance at our sites.

LATIF: He and Brian, they're like ...

BRIAN BALL: Let's get in there with chainsaws. Let's tear up some stuff.

NICK HADDAD: Cutting down trees.

BRIAN BALL: Cut it up, buck it on your shoulders and take it out.

LATIF: And then they would build dams as if they were beavers.

BRIAN BALL: Dam them up. Let's make a big mud hole. Let's dam up some streams and make sure we get some water on them.

LATIF: And hey, and while we're at it, let's start some fires! Brian, the biologist with the army, was telling me he basically goes around on the back of an ATV with, like, a flamethrower.

NICK HADDAD: Not that bad. Not that bad.

BRIAN BALL: It's—there's a lot of science to it and there's a lot of art, but there's a—pretty close to a flamethrower, yeah.

NICK HADDAD: And so we were able to create the wetlands that the butterflies needed.

LATIF: After that, they wait for a little bit.

NICK HADDAD: It took us about two years to see the semblance of success.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Oh, you saw the first one. All right. So of course, when I'm counting them, I'm in competition with Brian to see the most butterflies. And I saw three at the last site, he saw none.]

BRIAN BALL: I'll usually give him a few before I start counting, just to make him feel better.

LATIF: Oh wow, so it's a head start kind of thing.

BRIAN BALL: [laughs] Yeah, I give him a head start. Yeah, yeah. I'm a giver. [laughs]

LATIF: After Nick started using those lessons to save the butterflies, the population off of the ranges has rebounded from less than a hundred to over 3,000.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: I got another one.]

LATIF: So they are doing better than they've ever done before.

JAD: Wow!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Oh shoot, I see two more right now. So that's six—seven for me.]

NICK HADDAD: Well, when the butterflies start flying, well, that's exhilarating every time I see them.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: So now we're at 11, 12, 13! 13. Okay, that's 14 then.]

NICK HADDAD: What I realized in the end is that you have to kill some butterflies to save butterfly populations.

LATIF: Saving and killing as these two discrete things that are opposites and separate from each other, but they're just so weirdly marbled all up in each other.

NICK HADDAD: And I hate saying that because when there's only 3,000 butterflies left in the world, how can you justify killing any butterflies? But with the next step of new habitat regenerating that will be good for the butterflies.

LATIF: Better. That will actually create, foster more than you're killing.

NICK HADDAD: Yes, exactly.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Here it is. Brian, it's—I don't get it, it's coming right towards you. All right. 24, 25. Oh, 28! 30! 35! Damn, they're everywhere in here. 38. Ooh. Oh my gosh. Well there's one, but in a place I never see them. This one is about ...]

LATIF: So this is weird to admit, and I've never actually done this in a story before, but that was supposed to be the ending. What you just heard? That was the story I pitched, that was the story I reported, that was the story I wanted to tell. But then as I was finishing the reporting, I talked to somebody, somebody integral to the Saint Francis satyr story, who took Nick's lesson—killing in order to save, life springing forth from death—and pushed it further. Took it to a whole new level. A level that left me shocked and that made Nick very uncomfortable. That's after the break.

[BRIE: This is Brie calling from Austin, Texas. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

[JAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]

LATIF: Okay so now I want to do something sort of different.

JAD: Yeah, go for it.

LATIF: It's a little weird. I'm gonna start the same story over, but from a different point of view.

JAD: Okay.

LATIF: June 2, 1983. A sweltering ...

JAD: June 2, 1983.

LATIF: Yup. It is a sweltering day.

JAD: I was 10 years old. Not that this has anything to do with me, so continue.

LATIF: [laughs] It was a sweltering day at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. A 19-year-old soldier is tromping through the muddy wetland, and he notices something. It's brown, and it's about the size of a quarter, and it's fluttering through the tall grass around him. And it is a butterfly.

JAD: Hmm.

LATIF: Now this soldier, his name is Thomas Kral, he has been a butterfly collector since he was six years old, and he knows enough about them to look at this one and say, "This is something different." And a few years later, he actually ends up co-authoring a paper saying basically, it is a new subspecies of butterfly. Very few left, all on Fort Bragg. And because of that, it says in the paper, we need to protect this thing. And he also names it. So he calls it the Saint Francis' satyr after the patron saint of animals. Now that paper is the thing that Nick, our guy from the first part, based the last almost 20 years of his professional life on. It helps get the butterfly on the endangered species list, and that's why the military ends up calling Nick. And then Nick gets involved, and you know the rest of that story. But what we're gonna do right now is follow Tom's story.

JAD: Okay.

LATIF: He leaves Fort Bragg and becomes a real-estate appraiser. So this is now we're in kind of the early '90s. Around this time, US Fish and Wildlife raided Tom's house.

JAD: Whoa!

CHRIS NAGANO: Oh, before I forget, these are the butterflies that we charged out on.

LATIF: Oh, those are really nice!

LATIF: So I talked to the guy who was actually on that raid. His name is Chris Nagano.

CHRIS NAGANO: I spent 27 years working on endangered species at the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

LATIF: Okay, great.


LATIF: Turns out Tom was not just an enthusiast of butterflies, he was an avid collector, including collecting butterflies that you're not supposed to collect.

CHRIS NAGANO: butterflies from protected sites, listed butterflies.

LATIF: So Chris and his team show up at Tom's house in TucSon, Arizona.

CHRIS NAGANO: When we got there, his father was there. You know, we said, "Fish and Wildlife here to execute a warrant. Is Tom here?" And he said, "No, he's out collecting."

LATIF: So they start kind of going through his stuff.

CHRIS NAGANO: He had chrysalids in his refrigerator.

LATIF: Books and articles all over the bedroom. And about an hour into the search ...

CHRIS NAGANO: He got home with the animals he had been collecting.

LATIF: Oh my God! Oh, wow.

CHRIS NAGANO: And, you know, here were a bunch of federal ...

LATIF: But after getting over the surprise of there being a bunch of federal agents in his house, he agrees to walk them through his collection butterfly by butterfly.

CHRIS NAGANO: You know, and his collection rivaled major museums in the world.

LATIF: He had a room full of cabinets, and the cabinets were filled with butterflies. Almost 100,000 specimens of butterflies, including super rare ones.

CHRIS NAGANO: I mean, the guy was just a machine. You know, I could point, you know, to a random butterfly, any one of the thousands, and Tom could go, "Oh, yeah. I caught that on this trip and, you know, it was feeding on this kind of flower."

LATIF: Like, he was just very very—he knew his collection very, very well.

CHRIS NAGANO: You know, these guys, they—they know a lot.

LATIF: But there's one detail in all of this that really, really stuck with me. So Tom—they didn't just bust Tom, they busted a bunch of other collectors too, and in so doing they found letters that all of these collectors were sending to each other including Tom was sending, talking about, you know, where to find the best butterflies and how to evade detection. And one of those letters from Tom, the way he signed it was, "Yours in mass murder, Tom."

JAD: Whoa! Yours in mass murder?

LATIF: Yeah. I mean, the guy who discovered this butterfly and wrote a paper saying, like, there's so few of them left we need to protect them, also is signing letters saying, "Yours in mass murder," and is involved in this, like, massive butterfly poaching ring. Like, I felt like I just needed to talk to him.

JAD: Totally. Yeah.

LATIF: And I was, like, trying to track him down. I could not find him, could not find him, could not find him ...

[phone ringing]

LATIF: And then I found him.

TOM KRAL: Thomas Kral.

LATIF: Hi Thomas. How you doing? Do you go by Thomas, Tom?

TOM KRAL: Oh, Tom is fine.

LATIF: I should say really quickly that Tom, he argued he was confuSed by laws. He did plead guilty in exchange for essentially a slap on the wrist. No jail time. But when I told him I was interested in talking about the Saint Francis' satyr, which was not one of the butterflies he was charged for, he was super game to talk.

TOM KRAL: This is a far larger story than I think you initially signed up for. And that's okay.

LATIF: So I was like, Okay, let's do it!

JAD: Okay.

TOM KRAL: I was 19 years old and, you know, I started collecting butterflies on Fort Bragg.

LATIF: So he told me the whole story about finding the butterfly.

TOM KRAL: These looked a little different. So that day I caught oh, maybe about eight or so.

LATIF: But when he got to the paper that he wrote about it ...

TOM KRAL: You know, unfortunately, looking back, I was manipulated.

LATIF: He actually claimed that the reviewers and the editors at that journal pushed him into saying things that he says weren't true, or at least leaving out, you know, key details.

TOM KRAL: This is important.

LATIF: For example, the paper says the butterfly is only on Fort Bragg. Tom says he saw them in other places too.

TOM KRAL: In a couple places, I caught individuals off base of Fort Bragg.

LATIF: And on top of that ...

TOM KRAL: I had caught hybrid or intermediate specimens between that and the Georgia satyr. And they left that out of the paper.

LATIF: The way that it came across in the paper it's like, "Oh my God! It's about to die!" But the way Tom puts it, if it's mixing with other species ...

TOM KRAL: You know, this is natural selection taking place.

LATIF: It's not dying, it's just assimilating into the family next door.

TOM KRAL: This butterfly really isn't going extinct. It's going extinct in that form, but its genetics, you know, that everybody seems to be concerned about, continues on in another population.

LATIF: So basically what Tom is saying is that the dwindling populations of this butterfly are just no big deal. Which for me as a reporter, I was like, he just pulled the rug out from the entire story I just did.

JAD: Did he convincingly pull out the rug or did he ...?

LATIF: I mean, honestly, I wasn't sure. I mean, I checked out the journal. Totally scientifically legit. I talked to the editor at the time. He remembered it. Said that there was nothing weird about the review or the editing. He still stands by it. And when it comes to the science, you know, the things Tom says he actually saw, I figured I should just put it in front of Nick.

LATIF: Have you even met him or talked to him before?

NICK HADDAD: Never met him.

LATIF: Okay.

LATIF: So I just started out by telling him first of all, Tom said he found Saint Francis' satyrs off the base.

LATIF: Off of Fort Bragg.


LATIF: But he didn't write about that.

NICK HADDAD: That is new knowledge.

LATIF: And at first Nick was like, that would be so great.

NICK HADDAD: That is critically important knowledge if he ...

LATIF: Yep. He also said ...

NICK HADDAD: ... found the— he identified the place.

LATIF: But then Tom was a bit vague about where exactly, and then when he named a certain spot, Nick was like,"Oh, my team and I, we already looked there."

NICK HADDAD: He's off base. We're working on that right now.

LATIF: And a whole bunch of other places nearby.

NICK HADDAD: We've searched in the most likely places based on our best knowledge and the guidance that we can get from remote sensing or from experts in the area, but ...

LATIF: They had not found even a single one.

NICK HADDAD: Never found it.

LATIF: Okay another thing he said ...

LATIF: So then I told him that Tom said that the Saint Francis' Satyr was just mixing with this other group.

LATIF: Hybridizing with the Georgia satyr.

NICK HADDAD: No. That's not happening.

LATIF: In this case, Nick was just like, "Nope. No way."

NICK HADDAD: We've thought about that a lot.

LATIF: We've actually studied the Georgia Satyr. We've tried to figure out if this is happening. But these two butterflies ...

NICK HADDAD: They are different in how they look. They're different in how they behave.

LATIF: They're different in their DNA.

NICK HADDAD: And they're different in where they are on the landscape. You know, there's some remote chance, but no, they do not hybridize.

LATIF: So Nick had me back to okay, if you look at the science, if you look at the studies, if you look at the evidence, this thing is super rare. And it is not mixing with the neighbors. So it really is, like, if we don't save it, it really is going to disappear. And I actually put all this back in front of Tom. Mixed reaction. And Tom was not convinced.

TOM KRAL: So, you know, how do we know what its true range is, or if people find it?

LATIF: Okay, so did you believe at the time that this ought to have been an endangered species?

TOM KRAL: Absolutely not did I ever think this thing should have been listed as endangered. Absolutely not.

LATIF: I mean, I got the sense, like a pretty clear sense that he sees conservation science as totally politicized. And I think, you know, there's a chunk of that that has to do with his past experience, but there was also something that ran deeper than that, I think. You know, he was arguing that little subspecies of butterflies like the Saint Francis' satyr that are so small, so marginal, it just isn't worth the effort to save it at that point.

TOM KRAL: There isn't. I hate to say it, but insects—not in aggregate, but as individual species—they're minor players. Picking one or two entities and saying these are endangered. It becomes ludicrous.

NICK HADDAD: Sounds like a good way to justify collecting species to extinction and have a better collection.

LATIF: Which is a fair point by Nick. But at the same time, this was a question I was asking myself as I was learning about Nick's work, you know, nearly 20 years of tromping through bomb fields. And it's a question I've heard lots of people ask, including some scientists. You know, should we be picking out these little, itty-bitty things that there's just a few left of and, you know, put a lot of resources into trying to save them?

TOM KRAL: Insects are vast. I mean, just in terms of butterflies in North America, there's over 700 kinds. There's several hundred different, you know, additional subspecies. And this just really becomes one of, you know, thousands of other types of butterflies.

LATIF: Like, from Tom's POV, it's like, "If I hadn't discovered this thing in the first place, you wouldn't even care about it."

TOM KRAL: What I'm saying is, there's better places to put your limited conservation dollars.

LATIF: This is an argument that Nick has to face all the time.

NICK HADDAD: Honestly, I struggle with this one because you can—like Saint Francis' satyr, you cannot make the argument that they are pollinators or prey in their ecosystem that matter to anything. Saint Francis' satyr matters to zero flowers. Dragonflies and spiders eat Saint Francis' satyrs, but they're so few of them, like, they could make a fraction of one individual dragonfly's diet.

LATIF: It's not easy to come up with a practical or feel-good reason to save a creature like the Saint Francis' satyr. But especially as we are now in the middle of what scientists call the insect apocalypse, which, you know, because of pollination and food chains and everything ripples out into a wider ecological disaster, folks like Nick have to find, like, a little spot of territory to protect in that larger battle, right? He has to answer, like, why should we care about this butterfly? And Nick, he really just lands on a simple moral point.

NICK HADDAD: What's caused them to decline isn't some background rate of evolution, it's people that have drained wetlands, have put fields, farm fields or houses on butterfly—or next to butterfly habitat.

LATIF: And it's like, once we find out that it exists, like, to do nothing is to let it die.

NICK HADDAD: The reason to protect them in the end is an ethical one. We, people, shouldn't be the cause of extinction.

LATIF: This is on us.

JAD: Yeah.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Have you seen any yet?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Brian Ball: I've not seen any.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Super wet out here today. Whoa, shit!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Brian Ball: How many have you seen?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Two.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Brian Ball: I haven't seen anything.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Aw, dammit.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: All right. This is where I'm gonna see them. Right here.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Still nothing?]

LATIF: A quick note: in the time since we started reporting this, the number of Saint Francis' satyrs has gone back down a little bit. They're hovering around 800. So Nick still has a fight on his hands.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: This is a site where in a half hour I expect to see, I don't know, at least 30 butterflies. I've seen two so far.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Haddad: Wading through chest-high ferns.]

LATIF: This story was reported by me, Latif Nasser. Produced by Rachael Cusick. With music from Jeremy Bloom and mix help from Arianne Wack as usual.

JAD: And then there's more things you're gonna say, right?

LATIF: Yeah, and special thanks to Snooki Puli, Cita Escalano, Jeffrey Glassberg, Margot Williams, Mark Romyn, Elizabeth Long, the Public Affairs and Endangered Species Branches at Fort Bragg.

JAD: Before we go, I just want to—I just want to say that coming up, not now but in a week, is a baller series from our producer Simon Adler starting next week.

LATIF: So exciting!

JAD: And it's not about butterflies, but it is about a thing you might've overlooked, a piece of technology that no one thinks about, but it actually determined everything about the world we live in, from the internet to the little phone in your hand that's listening to my voice now. And Simon is going to take you literally around the world in story after story.

LATIF: And through time.

JAD: Yes! Through time, through space. And he wrote all the music for this thing, and wrote—just, like, it was a true feat of one man doing everything, and it's kind of mind-blowing. I know that we will disappoint you inevitably at some point at Radiolab, but it won't happen in the next five weeks.

LATIF: [laughs]

JAD: That I can assure you.

LATIF: [laughs]

JAD: So ...

LATIF: What a—what a promise. Don't unsubscribe yet.

JAD: Don't unsubscribe yet. That starts next week.

LATIF: Okay, we should go.

JAD: Okay.

LATIF: Thanks for listening.

JAD: Bye.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer, and Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Tanya Chawla, Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Candice Wang. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly and Emily Krieger.]

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