Tramping through 100 yards of tall grass on a recent humid, sticky afternoon, Susan Muller could see her triumph clearly.
There, perched on a green thistle, was a beautiful Baltimore checkerspot butterfly - perhaps the first to appear in Howard County in years.
"That was exciting," said Muller, who has toiled for the past year to set the environmental stage for a checkerspot renaissance.
Her work is part of growing effort by a loose coalition of allies to reverse a grinding assault on the state's most attractive but least seen natural symbol.
Deer and development have destroyed most of the habitat for Maryland's official state insect - including the turtlehead plant, which this increasingly rare species relies upon.
"The butterfly is becoming more and more scarce," said microbiologist Fred Paraskevoudakis, president of the Maryland Entomological Society. In 1973, his group got the Maryland General Assembly to name the Baltimore checkerspot - adorned with the orange, black, red and white colors of Maryland's founder, Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore - the state insect.
"The problem is a creation of man's. We develop and develop and develop," Paraskevoudakis said. Phil Kean, a co-founder of the society, said suburbanization has created another problem.
In order for the butterflies to spread, "there has to be an opportunity for them to migrate from one suitable location to the next. Suburbanization increases the separation between these islands of habitat. When you have a local extinction, it makes it difficult to crop up anywhere else," Kean said.
And butterflies aren't just pretty, said Wayne Wehling, an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"They're probably second only to the bees as pollinators," he said.
Now efforts are mounting to save the checkerspot, both for its utility and its beauty.
Pat Durkin, who helped found the Washington Area Butterfly Club, is trying to breed checkerspots in her backyard garden in Washington, and Pam Jones is making a documentary film about them, using Jay W. McRoberts' butterfly breeding facility in Montgomery County, and money from Potomac Electric Power Co., the Washington-area utility company that has offered its 10,000 acres of power line right of way for related ecological projects.
"Informally, we're trying to restore the Baltimore checkerspot," Durkin said, describing how much she has learned tending the turtlehead plants she put in her garden two months ago.
Mature butterflies, including one female, have developed from caterpillars she brought home, she said. The female laid her eggs, and Durkin is hoping the life cycle will bring more butterflies next June.
The eggs, which are deposited on the underside of a leaf, hatch during the summer. The young caterpillars eat the leaves, molting periodically as they grow. Eventually they crawl down the plant, convert their body fluids into a sort of natural antifreeze, and burrow into the ground for winter. The next spring, they wake up, crawl back up the plant and begin eating again until they develop into adults in June.
If all that sounds encouraging, consider the effect of development over the last several decades, said Muller, who is a Howard County natural resources worker.
The spread of new homes over woods and farmland has led to an explosion in the local deer population, which can't be hunted in residential areas. The deer in turn have eaten virtually all the dark-green, arrow-shaped leaves of the turtlehead plants that Euphydryas phaeton - the Baltimore checkerspot - relies upon almost exclusively as a breeding site.
There still might be a few of them fluttering off Route 77 near Thurmont, and out near Garrett County, but they are rare these days in Central Maryland, experts said.
"In 1997, I found nearly 40 [checkerspots near Thurmont]. Last year, I found only three," said Richard Smith, another Maryland Entomological Society member. "Not many people know enough to care. It's one of the more beautiful insects around," he said.
Despite the obstacles, Muller and her friends are determined to shift the balance.
"Every species has its niche in the ecosystem," said Muller, who works for Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks. "I think any species that used to exist here - if there's a possibility to restore it, the effort should be made," she said.
Muller used $130 in county grant money to buy turtlehead plants and caterpillars. Last spring, she planted the turtleheads in four marshy county-owned spots from Cabin Branch Farm in western Howard to Timbers of Troy golf course in Elkridge, protecting each planting with a mesh cage. Another site is at Warfield Pond Park near Glenwood.
Her efforts were rewarded recently when she checked her site off Route 108 in Clarksville and found a checkerspot.
The insects live about 10 days after emerging from their cocoons as adults - enough time to lay eggs for the next year.