In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the race to save the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly
By: Mihir Zaveri, The Oregonian June 17, 2011
BASKETT SLOUGH — Cheryl Schultz stumped through the shoulder-high grass, searching. Then, after a quick swoop and twist of her net, she caught her target, a tiny blur of fluttering blue.
She’d netted an endangered Fender’s blue butterfly, one of an estimated 6,000 left. At this national wildlife refuge a few miles west of Salem, one of the few places Fender’s are found, Schultz studies its preferences in food and shelter. Each spring, the butterflies lay eggs here. Schultz wants to figure out whether active management of their particular habitat will help the Fender’s blue.
Her project, and others like it, are key to the survival of the Fender’s blue.
Decades ago, when much of the landscape was grassland, Kincaid’s lupine thrived, as did the Fender’s blue, which often lays its eggs on the lupine’s leaves.
Sometime in the 1930s, the butterflies disappeared. Some people thought they were gone forever.
But their rediscovery in the late 1980s sparked hope. People like Schultz are now working to save the Fender’s blue, one of Oregon’s 20 endangered species, from slipping away forever.
Paul Severns pushed his bike up Coburg Ridge east of Eugene, his best friend by his side. At the top, he noticed three small butterflies. Being a 12-year-old boy intrigued by all insects, he scooped them up. It was 1988 and only decades later did he realize he’d collected the Fender’s blue butterflies.
In 1989, Oregon State University biologist Paul Hammond stunned the Oregon butterfly community when he officially rediscovered the Fender’s blue butterfly. He also identified the Fender’s blue host plant, Kincaid’s lupine, and with OSU researchers pinpointed where it grew in the Willamette Valley. It led them to more Fender’s blues.
Severns, now a postdoctoral research associate at Washington State University who is part of Schultz’s butterfly research project, doesn’t share the story of his unofficial discovery, though he appreciates that today he’s part of the Fender’s blue comeback.
“That was pretty much the end of it for me. Paul Hammond reported the rediscovery as a scientist is expected to do,” Severns says.
Mobilized to conserve
Invasive species, trees and poison oak overrun much of the Baskett Slough refuge. But controlled burns in test areas have restored patches of a prairie landscape, much like Native Americans maintained it with controlled burns before settlers arrived. The lupines are easier to see. As are the butterflies that Schultz catches.
She releases some in the test areas and others in areas where there haven’t been any burns, then watches. She compares what the butterflies are attracted to, where they go and how fast they get there to see which habitat suits them best. A $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense funds the study. While the butterfly is the subject, the implications of Schultz’s research are much greater.
“The rarity of these species is really a symptom of what happened to the ecosystem,” says Ed Alverson, an ecologist for The Nature Conservancy who has worked with the Fender’s blue about 20 years. “If we were to just focus on the few species that were listed and ignore the ecosystem, we would be failing in our mission.”
In fact, in looking at the ecosystem as a whole, the Fender’s blue has little importance. Other species don’t really depend on the butterfly to survive, as its population size is too low, says Schultz, an associate professor at WSU.
When the butterfly was listed in 2000 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, it became a target species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work to increase populations and get it off that list.
But the fight for the butterfly is about more than just getting it off a list, says Alverson, because if the Fender’s blue is doing well, the ecosystem is doing well.
Landowners help out
Private landowners, who own more than 95 percent of the Willamette Valley, play a key role in preservation, says Mikki Collins, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife, which helps about 70 landowners conserve Fender’s blue habitat. Other organizations help, too. Benton County, The Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the city of Eugene and Marion County direct efforts to buy, manage and enhance butterfly habitat.
While Fender’s populations look stable for now, full recovery will take significant management, says Jock Beall, a refuge biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
That’s why groups like the nonprofit insect advocates The Xerces Society are willing to turn to the courts.
Last year, the group threatened to sue Yamhill County for its roadwork, which Xerces said was destroying Fender’s blue habitat. This year, the county is developing a habitat conservation plan so they make sure they’re in compliance with the endangered species act.
“If we’re going to protect these butterflies,” says Xerces executive director Scott Black, “we have to protect the sites on which they remain.”