OPINION: Butterflies give Pierre Howard a new way to make an impact

This Diana Fritillery was photographed by former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard.
Caption
This Diana Fritillery was photographed by former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard.

Credit: Pierre Howard

Credit: Pierre Howard

The former lieutenant governor has spent three decades finding Georgia’s rare species

Pierre Howard spent the better part of 26 years of his life in Georgia’s Capitol, first as a state senator and then as a lieutenant governor during Gov. Zell Miller’s two terms.

But for the past three decades, Howard has traded lawmakers and lobbyists for animals of a different sort, butterflies to be exact, finding them, tracking them and then photographing them in a rare moment of sunlit stillness.

The perfect shot can be months or years in the making. After decades of pursuing them, he’s seen nearly all of the 172 species in Georgia, photographed them and documented his findings at his website, GeorgiaNature.com. And he has just completed a book with three co-authors about the butterflies of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

It will publish next year through the University of North Carolina Press.

Then-Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, center, is flanked by Gov. Zell Miller and state Sen. Mark Taylor in 1997 at the Georgia Capitol, where he served 26 years in office, beginning as a state senator. He's spent the decades that followed pursuing a new quest, trying to photograph each of the 172 species of butterflies that exist in Georgia. (Kimberly Smith/AJC staff)
Caption
Then-Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, center, is flanked by Gov. Zell Miller and state Sen. Mark Taylor in 1997 at the Georgia Capitol, where he served 26 years in office, beginning as a state senator. He's spent the decades that followed pursuing a new quest, trying to photograph each of the 172 species of butterflies that exist in Georgia. (Kimberly Smith/AJC staff)

Credit: KIMBERLY SMITH

Credit: KIMBERLY SMITH

How and when did Georgia’s former second-in-command become so entranced with the tiny, delicate creatures so many people take for granted?

In an interview from his home in Atlanta, Howard described growing up in Decatur, taking weekend hunting and fishing trips with his father from the time he was very young.

“I have always found that ‘outdoor people’ like me eventually become interested in just about everything out there,” he said.

Shortly after he left politics in 1998, he said a quiet moment during a family trip to the beach found him looking at birds he could not identify. A visit to a St. Simons bookstore to research his discoveries led to bird walks with experts at Fernbank Science Center and a new hobby following and photographing birds.

A bird trip included a rare butterfly sighting and the rest unfolded from there.

“I started thinking, ‘I wonder if it’d be possible for me to see every butterfly that occurs in the whole state?’ ” he said. “So I started going to these far-flung places around Georgia by myself.”

Howard quickly found that finding butterflies can be as complicated as his old job, passing bills. Each species requires being in the right place, at the right time of year, standing next to the right tree species that each butterfly will migrate toward.

Along with the planning, it also meant an enormous amount of driving, something any politico in Georgia knows all about, including Howard, who spent four years driving the back roads of the state in the 1980s preparing for his statewide run for LG.

“People were telling me then that I had no chance to win statewide,” he said, “and so the only way that I overcame that was just getting in my car and driving around.”

Those were the years when conventional wisdom said candidates in Georgia needed to be from rural Georgia to win statewide, not from DeKalb County and most certainly not named “Pierre.”

“I told people ‘Pierre’ was French for ‘Bubba,’ and it worked pretty well,” he said.

But even those years of statewide campaigns didn’t cover as much ground as chasing butterflies.

“I know the state like the back of my hand in many ways, but I didn’t realize that there were so many places that I hadn’t seen until I started doing this butterfly thing and it’s been a wonderful experience just for that reason,” he said.

But following the flighty insects has proved occasionally, and surprisingly, dangerous since species such as the Hessel’s Hairstreak lay their eggs in trees above swamps, where venomous cottonmouth snakes abound.

Pierre Howard had to work hard to take this photograph a Hessel's Hairstreak. They lay their eggs in trees above swamps where venomous cottonmouth snakes abound.
Caption
Pierre Howard had to work hard to take this photograph a Hessel's Hairstreak. They lay their eggs in trees above swamps where venomous cottonmouth snakes abound.

Credit: Pierre Howard

Credit: Pierre Howard

One drive to LaGrange for a speech included a spontaneous roadside stop after spotting a species he’d been looking for. Howard slipped down an embankment, snapped 82 pictures of his elusive butterfly and then drove himself to a Piedmont Urgent Care outpost for stitches.

He brims with enthusiasm about his butterfly finds the way he might have once felt about winning an election or passing a bill.

“I’ve seen all species but three — and I don’t think anybody has seen those in Georgia for the last 20 or 30 years,” he said.

Above and beyond the thrill of the hunt, Howard says his primary motivation for seeking out butterflies is land conservation — the animating issue he’s worked on since leaving the Capitol.

“I know that a lot of people think it’s an odd thing to do, but if you understand why a person would do that, it makes sense,” he said of his newish hobby.

Land conservation is also the reason he has served on the boards of state and private land groups, why he worked for five years as president and CEO of the Georgia Conservancy and written his forthcoming book. “It’s all been because of my belief that we need to preserve more land,” he said.

It’s also a former pol’s way of continuing to make an impact on the state, even without being on a ballot.

“I haven’t done much politically in a while,” he said. “I think it’s time for me to sit down and shut up.”

He offers that his way of doing business when he was in politics for 26 years was “to try to get along with everybody, regardless of their party or their political beliefs and to try to get things done. And I’m just hoping we can get back to that.”

It’s hard to imagine politics in Georgia changing back to Pierre Howard’s way of operating.

But maybe there’s a lesson to be found in the former lieutenant governor’s new pursuit — that things can change, and dramatically so.

Butterflies are about transformation, after all.

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