The effect of ski-pistes on butterflies

By | July 19, 2013

I have a weak spot for butterflies, and I love skiing. Every time I go up a ski lift I wonder how such a major landscape modification (ski pistes or ski slopes) affects nature. I have always had the impression that clear-cutting long and wide strips in mountain forests is not necessarily a bad thing. If maintained sensibly, a ski piste is essentially a mountain meadow. And meadows, pastures and open grasslands in mountains are often endangered by spontaneous succession (where grazing is no longer practiced), they offer much nicer views than forests, in spring and summer there are all the flowers, and in the autumn you can pick up magic mushrooms there (at least in the Czech Republic).

In their neat recent paperĀ Rolando et al. examined butterfly communities on ski pistes in the Italian Alps, and they compared them with communities on nearby pastures and in adjacent forests. Unsurprisingly, coniferous forests around the pistes are species-poor - there simple aren't many forest butterflies in Europe in general. More interesting were the results from the open habitats: ski pistes had higher abundance of butterflies, whereas nearby pastures had higher richness. This was mirrored by the same pattern in plants.

Rolando et al. give some straightforward advices on management of the pistes, so that they are more butterfly-friendly. To summarize them: Allow (at least some) plants to grow on the pistes, do not regularly and completely remove all of the vegetation with heavy machinery (a common practice) and reduce fertilization. All pretty simple things.

I took an optimistic feeling from the study: Ski pistes have the potential to host pretty cool butterfly fauna (although the authors claim that the pistes will always be a sub-optimal habitat). Maybe not right after the forest is cleared and all vegetation is stripped out, but if we wait a couple of years, the butterflies will come. And if the right research is done, maybe new ways of management can be found that will be even more diversity-friendly. And we will have even more fun on ski pistes, all year round.

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