The Endagered Regal Fritillary

BY LAWRENCE TABAK | NOV 2 2017 (from

When we think about lost landscapes, it’s usually the vistas that come to mind: the seemingly endless old-growth forests once stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, the sea of tallgrass beyond. But loss also holds for the small things. Take the regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia), a large, darting orange butterfly with bold silver markings. It was once as common as the monarch, whose size it roughly matches. Now you have to know where to look to find one, and even then it can be elusive. The last known specimen on the Eastern Seaboard was captured in Vermont in 1941; otherwise they are relegated to islands of remnant prairie in the Midwest and are under consideration for federal endangered status. 

Regal fritillaries are picky about their habitat. Their larval food is restricted to prairie violets; they then need a large and varied source of nectar over their relatively long two to three months of adult life. They don’t do well when trees encroach on a prairie and are sensitive, particularly in the overwintering larval stage, to prairie fires—a delicate balance, since healthy tallgrass prairies require regular burning.

Richard Henderson, a staff ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, has seen the population of regals shift during his lifetime. “Populations crashed in the 1970s and 1980s and we became very concerned,” he says. Deepening that concern was the lack of a clear cause of their decline. Habitat loss was an issue, but other factors could include burns, burn timing, and possibly disease as well.

Henderson sees the showy butterfly as a proxy for prairie health. “It’s not just the regal fritillary,” he says. “Some 2,000 species of prairie-specialist insects have been identified in the upper Midwest.” Tracking 2,000 different kinds of insects, however, is obviously not practical. But once you’ve seen the telltale dark inner wings of a swooping regal fritillary, it can be confused with nothing else, making census counts with volunteers practical and accurate.

Could restoring the tallgrass prairie save the species? Prairie restoration has become a widespread, even standard landscaping practice for open spaces in many Midwestern public and corporate parks. But even one of the oldest and most impressive restored prairies in the country, the Curtis Prairie in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, is missing one obvious element: regal fritillaries.

“If we had a fuller knowledge of how plants and insects and other wildlife interact,” Henderson says, “perhaps we’d have a chance to bring a prairie back to full life in 50 or 100 years instead of thousands. On top of that comes the complication from the inevitable invasives. It’s a huge challenge.”

There is hope, however. In the late 1990s, John Harrington, a University of Wisconsin professor of planning and landscape ecology, and graduate student Kathy Beilfuss began tagging regals at a prairie remnant outside of Madison to track the distribution and range of adults. They found that, for the most part, regals stuck close to home. That’s good in that they remain close to their relatively rare larval food but bad for expanding populations. 

Prairie violets appear to be key to a solution. When Montana State professor of ecology Diane Debinski was teaching at Iowa State at the turn of the century, she led a groundbreaking effort to reintroduce fritillaries to Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, west of Des Moines, which includes 3,000 acres of restored prairie. After a concerted effort to establish the necessary violets, in 2000 and 2001, captured adult butterflies were released onto tented areas containing the essential flower. In 2002, more than 84 free-ranging regals were sighted and many continued to be observed in subsequent years. It takes a large effort, but it is possible to reverse the decline of one of the most spectacular residents of mid-America’s once dominant ecosystem, the tallgrass prairie. 


Remembering a Special Time

In September, 1984 the U.S. Davis Cup team played Australia in Portland, Oregon. With John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors (numbers 1 and 3 in the world at the time), it was arguably the greatest U.S. team ever. However, it was the Davis Cup Captain who history will most likely remember. In my role on the national staff of the USTA I helped arrange a series of school visits to Portland Public Schools with Arthur Ashe, which I MCed.



Axelrod’s Prescience

I’m listening to David Axelrod read his 2014 political memoir, “Believer.” Axelrod was Obama’s chief strategist in his two presidential campaigns. Although written long before Trump’s rise, he provides a lot of insights into the recent election. For instance, the way that incumbent presidents (especially 2-term) are often replaced by candidates who are polar opposites. We may forget how heartily Obama was initially championed as an agent of change.

One aside especially caught my eye. In the spring of 2006 Obama was a freshman senator, just two years out of the Illinois legislature. Yet there was buzz about his running in 2008, rumors he staunchly refuted. Then two of the most powerful and experienced Democrats, Charles Schumer and Harry Reid, called him into a private meeting. They encouraged him to run. Though both acknowledged they couldn’t publicly oppose the front runner, Hillary Clinton, neither “thought Hillary could win.”

What changed between 2006 and 2016? Nothing.axelrod


Why Hillary Lost — Bring in the Clowns

In 1994 Diane and I and our two young boys were living in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Every day I drove a half-hour into Missouri where I parked next to The Country Club Plaza, the first shopping mall in America designed for automotive traffic. On a hill to the south of the Plaza were two 14-story towers where I was getting settled into my job as Senior Writer for what was still called Twentieth Century Investors, now American Century Investors, one of the largest mutual fund companies in the U.S.

The company had been founded by James Stowers in the 1950s, and flourished as his innovative use of the first computers powered the company’s quantitative approach to stock picking. It was a great place to work and to learn the business. One of the perks was the company’s steady supply of special events tickets, which were allocated by lottery.

That November I drew two tickets to the American Royal Rodeo at Kemper Arena, an event I would have never otherwise considered attending. But my first-born son was seven and I was always eager to expose him to new experiences. On a cool fall evening we made our way through the cowboy-hatted crowds into the arena and to our mid-tier seats. I remember a bit of the bronco and bull riding and the barrel-riding side event for the cowgirls. But most of all I recall a break in the action, near the middle of the show, when one of the circus clowns came out to entertain the crowd.

The clown strolled to the center of the dirt-covered arena floor towing a donkey, which he introduced as a specially talented ass. Her name, he announced to hearty laughter, was Hillary. I don’t recall all the specifics of the routine, although a theme was the animal doing exactly the opposite of what he requested. In any case, each of his little bits was met with raucous laughter. I remember looking around helplessly, befuddled in my discomfort over this brazen attack on our First Lady. Bill Clinton had been elected to his first term three years prior in 1991, and had immediately appointed Hillary to a taskforce to reform what was widely accepted to be a broken health care system. The proposed revisions were widely divisive, with the health care industry spending millions on anti-reform ads. The eventual proposals, even in compromised state, were all rounded rejected by Congress and the hugely profitable heath care industry breathed a sigh of relief.

The Hillary jokes piled on, one after another. At one point my seven-year-old got my attention and asked, “Dad, what’s so funny?”

“I have no idea,” I responded, quite honestly.

Keep in mind this was not only long before Benghazi or email servers — it was long before email. It was years before Lewinski or the Clinton-presidential era scandals of Whitewater and the impeachment. Social media-driven conspiracy rumors were still the thing of science fiction. But already the rodeo crowd was on the hate-Hillary bandwagon, fanned, no doubt, by the growing popularity of conservative talk radio and the fear-mongering over a government itching to tell your doctor how to treat you (supposing you could afford to go to doctor in the first place).

So why was Hillary, so early in her nationally public life, already the object of such scorn and bile? It’s not as though this was the norm for first ladies. Think of the previous Democratic First Ladies. Jackie Kennedy was virtually worshipped in a Princess Di sort of way. I don’t believe Rosalyn Carter took up much mind space in the body politic one way or another. On the Republican side, even Nancy Reagan, with her astrological charts and conspiratorial whisperings into Ronnie’s ear, might have been roundly criticized, but was hardly the material for circus clowns.

As this most recent round of primaries began I remember telling my son, now grown and on his own in California, about his childhood visit to the rodeo, which he can no longer recall. I said, “I don’t believe Hillary is electable.” Not because she wasn’t qualified, but because to a broad section of America she’d been reduced to a figure of ridicule for more than twenty years, a campaign that never really stopped. To those Americans, like the cowboy-hatted crowds in Kemper Arena, they could no more picture Hillary Clinton in the white house than they could the rodeo clown.

Last week, on Sixty Minutes, a focus group of twenty Hillary and Donald supporters were asked how many of them were primarily motivated by conviction in their candidate. Three raised their hands. The rest were driven by contempt for their opponent.

All of which reminded me of another popular voting spectacle: American Idol. In an interview Simon Cowell, the bluntly charismatic Brit who was the real star of the show, explained that the contest wasn’t really about finding the best vocalist, but rather finding a very good vocalist who people liked. He noted a singer who he thought might be the most talented, and then discounted her chances. When it came to rounding up the millions of votes needed to win American Idol, it was likability which counted most. And whence this likability? Cowell’s assessment: “Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.”

In some quarters, largely those inhabited by the well-educated who understand the difference between fact-based media reporting and the rumor mill, Hillary’s exceptional qualifications and her opponent’s exceptional lack thereof made the voting decision easy. But much of the rest of the country was like that rodeo audience back in 1994, who would be hard-pressed to define why they already hated Hillary. Was it because she was smart, educated, powerful? Because she championed common sense reform of a broken health care system that was leaving huge swathes of America uninsured and at risk of medical bankruptcy? I don’t think so. If you believe in charisma, then you should believe in its opposite.

“I don’t know,” they would have responded if asked. “Just can’t stand her.”

P.S. A version of this post was published as an op-ed in the Madison Wisconsin Capital Times on November 16, 2016. Capital Times





Hillbilly Elegies and The American Dream



I just finished reading J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. While the rags-to-riches story contains much of the expected Horatio Alger drama, it was generally disappointing in terms of composition and execution. Much of Vance’s childhood was spent in rust-belt Ohio, even as his heart remained in Eastern Kentucky. His insistence on self-identification as “hillbilly” often seems more affectation than honesty, even as the details of growing up impoverished, amidst addiction and dysfunction are clinically reported. Not to spoil the story, but the author is saved by tough-nosed grandparents, innate ability and the Marines. He goes on to Ohio State, Yale Law, and his current ascension to the 1% as a partner in one of the nation’s largest venture capital firms. Despite this fertile storyline, it has none of the lyricism of my favorite contemporary memoirs, such as Annie Dillard’s American Childhood, or Mark Salzman’s Lost in Place. It can’t match the crackling, self-lacerating humor of Running with Scissors or Little Failure.

Then in the final chapters Vance saves the book with his startling leap of insights, using the expanse of his family, friends and fellow descendants of blue-collar failure to illuminate modern America’s crisis and the rise of Trumpism.

Back home in Ohio after graduation, during the summer before starting law school, Vance notes that “the incredible optimism I felt about my own life contrasted sharply with the pessimism of so many of my neighbors…there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large.”

He explicates the lack of heroes for his once-thriving industrial town (Middleton) and the absent of “the most basic promise of the American Dream — a steady wage.” What follows is his description of the irony of this intensely patriotic segment of America’s detachment from its political leaders and government. White conservative Americans, like most of the population of his hometown, have been shown to have widespread beliefs in these kinds of oddities: their President (Obama) was not born in the United States, and is a Muslim with ties to extreme terrorists. “Obama,” he writes, “strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities.” That America has become not only a place where people of color can triumph, but one that is given to the urban and educated. The rampant belief in far-fetched conspiracies is not, Vance assures us, just a matter of ignorance. His people are exposed to the mainstream narratives and the debunking of these myths, “they simply don’t believe them.” They prefer the narratives passed along via social media, promulgating such nonsense as the U.S. government’s role in 9/11, Obamacare’s plan to plant microchips in all Americas (“the mark of the beast”), the engineering of mass murder to engender an effort to confiscate guns, Obama’s intent to declare martial law and ascend to a third term.

Vance then makes a brutal indictment of the conservative right’s culpability in this movement. By championing the cause that government is your enemy, “the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault you’re a loser; it’s the government’s.” As an example of how far this thinking has infiltrated the American mind he cites his father’s reaction when he proudly relays the news of his acceptance at Yale Law. His father asks if he had pretended “to be black or a liberal.”

All of which matches nicely with Thomas Piketty, who had his own best seller with his 2013 Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He persuasively argues that the free market, which is often portrayed by conservatives as a great force for good if left to its own devices, instead continually increases inequality. As economic mobility continues to decline in America (we are now well behind many other industrial nations), the once exalted ideal of meritocracy has lost much of its power, and as Piketty argues, is instead used to support the perverted Protestant notion that worldly riches are a sign of just rewards, if not divine approval. This, by the way, a pillar of the belief system promulgated by Trump’s spiritual mentor, Norman Vincent Peale.

Hillbilly Elegies is a powerful look at why the greatest threat to the American experiment is not foreign-based terrorism, but indigenous frustration and pessimism, fueled by ill-serving Americans who find it useful to promulgate conspiracies and hate and empty promises that we can go back to a time when the factory across town had plenty of great-paying jobs.



The Korea Herald, the largest Korean English-language newspaper, reviews IN REAL LIFE today:


Korea Herald on IN REAL LIFE


Review of IN REAL LIFE

Thanks Mila for the kind words! “I couldn’t stop reading…100% recommend…a breath of fresh air…”…






From a review on,…

“The novel is about personal growth, but also about cultural differences and the shocking life of eSports athletes in South Korea. Seth isn’t exactly a trainee, but is brought on Team Anaconda almost immediately, but his lifestyle is reminiscent of the infamous lifestyle of K-pop trainees. Every moment of his life is practically planned for him, and when he gets caught in a scandal, there is outrage from his handlers.

Yes, handlers.

In Real Life shows the shocking divide between fantasy of going to South Korea to be an entertainer (because that’s really what professional athletes are) and the reality of being a professional there. I don’t want to ruin anything for readers, but Seth’s story is both illuminating and a tale of caution about the life of foreigners in Korea.”


Three Great Novels About Teens in the Arts

This column was published Sunday in the Wisconsin State Journal, featuring Sara Zarr’s The Lucy Variations, Gayle Forman’s Where She Went and Barry Lyga’s Fanboy and Gothgirl:


Booklist Releases Review of IN REAL LIFE

15-year old Seth Gordon just wants to play games. For big money, if possible.
15-year old Seth Gordon just wants to play games. For big money, if possible.

An online gamer’s talents vault him to pro level in this well-crafted…debut. By dint of focused dedication to his chosen fantasy game, Starfare, teen math prodigy Seth wrangles entry into a national competition with a $30,000 prize. He doesn’t win—but to his amazement, his innovative play earns an invitation to join one of the world’s top professional teams in South Korea, where gaming is a big-bucks sport. IM and Skype notwithstanding, that’s a very long way from home and girlfriend Hannah. Readers will find Seth an unusually vivid protagonist. Instead of just announcing Seth is a whiz at gaming and math, Tabak repeatedly puts him in the “zone,” implementing strategic and tactical maneuvers in hot game action, and at other times eagerly digging into calculus and inventing algorithms. In contrast to his hostile South Korean teammates, Seth is a good guy: humble in his hard-won successes but not a wimp. Ultimately, loneliness, culture shock, and a scholarship draw him back home, where a final pleasant surprise involving Hannah’s college plans awaits. It’s always satisfying to see a smart and likable character “level up.”