Joe Hovis, left, a widlife biologist at Fort Indiantown Gap, leads members of the public touring the butterfly habitat. (Photo by Maj. Angela King-Sweigart/Released)
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FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. - Butterfly tours are offered each summer here. For more than 10 years, the staff biologists have hosted more than 300 members of the public, allowing them to catch a glimpse of the rare Regal Fritillary butterfly.Tours take place during the summer months close to when the butterflies emerge from their cocoons. Registrants meet on the installation; are given a brief then escorted by several experts to the preserved habitat.The Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia) is a large, orange, and black butterfly that was once found commonly throughout the Northeast, but its habitat has been reduced over the last 30 years. Fort Indiantown Gap has set aside more than 219 acres of training area and ranges to conduct research on the regal habitat. The most frequently asked question from the tour groups, according to Julie Eckenrode, a conservation biologist and expert on the Regal Fritillary, is "Why is Fort Indiantown Gap the only place the regal fritillary lives in the eastern United States?” According to Eckenrode, the butterfly is grassland endemic- meaning it can only live in grasslands. Grasslands have faced a severe decline since the early 1900s due to urbanization, agriculture and succession. Military training at the installation, like vehicle maneuvering, along with habitat maintenance by Fort Indiantown Gap employees and volunteers has allowed the approximately 1,000 acres of native warm-season grasslands here to thrive.The staff said tour participants traveled from all over to view the rare butterfly. Some have come from as far as California and Minnesota. “The great thing about the tour, is that there are so many experts here to answer questions. You come away with more information-they are all teachers,” said Mike Schull a photographer and member of the Lancaster Camera Club and the Lancaster County Bird Club, and a retired teacher himself.The installation is committed to preserving and maintaining the environment. “I am proud of our sustainable range program in that it integrates mission support and environmental stewardship to ensure the long-term sustainability of our land,” said Lt. Col. Dale Waltman, acting deputy commander of Fort Indiantown Gap.“Protecting the habitat of the Regal Fritillary is just one aspect of our commitment to preserving, protecting, conserving and restoring the quality of the environment,” he said.Fort Indiantown Gap is a premier National Guard training center. More than 100,000 troops train here each year on the numerous ranges, simulators and urban training complexes.To learn more about the butterfly, visit: http://www.milvet.state.pa.us/dmva/REGAL_BUTTERFLY/index.html