Wet and Wild: BLM is developing a plan for managing a key natural habitat
By: Susan Palmer, The Register-Guard June 22, 2011
The American grass bug — a little brown critter about the size of your thumbnail — is not the most exciting insect Celeste Mazzacano has gone out tracking, definitely not up there with your damselflies and dragonflies.
But Mazzacano was out netting them recently on wetlands owned by the Bureau of Land Management in west Eugene as part of an effort to better understand the invertebrates on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands.
Mazzacano knows that bugs definitely fall outside the category of “charismatic mega fauna,” buffalo and eagles, say, animals that loom large in people’s imaginations. As a staff scientist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, she’s always having to explain why they’re worth understanding and preserving.
“Ecologically speaking, these little dudes matter,” she said. Insects play a role that can include pollinating plants, dispersing seeds or feeding on pest insects, such as mosquitoes.
Researchers are still learning about the American grass bug, unknown outside the Willamette Valley. Their preferred habitat is the tufted hairgrass of wetlands, Mazzacano said.
“It’s a rare little bug that doesn’t have too many havens left,” she said.
The BLM announced this month that it will develop a resource management plan for its 1,300 acres of west Eugene wetlands, a tiny swath of land compared with the other real estate the federal agency oversees. Think of the 2.2 million acres of Western Oregon forests the BLM manages, say, or its 428,000 acres in the Steens Mountain area near Burns. Nationwide, the BLM has responsibility for 258 million acres, the most of any federal agency.
But while the wetlands may be a mere snippet of land, they loom large as key habitat in the recovery of four species at risk of extinction, as well as rare species not yet listed. The proposed plan may well be the smallest — in terms of acreage — ever written by the BLM, but the agency still wants public comment as it begins scoping work, said Richard Hardt, planning and environmental coordinator at the Eugene district office.
The BLM is just one of several public agencies that own land in the 3,000 acres of wetlands tucked among the big box stores and industrial buildings on the west side of town. Some of the land is held by the city of Eugene, some by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, and some by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.
To complicate matters further, the land that’s collectively known as wetlands, actually includes a range of habitats — such as upland prairie and oak savannah, as well as the summer pools that slowly dry. Together this ecosystem once represented about 30 percent of the Willamette Valley landscape, but that was before European-American immigration. Now encroaching cities and farms have left just 1 percent of those ecosystems intact, according to state and federal estimates.
Three plants and a butterfly that thrive in the prairie environment are listed as endangered.
Bradshaw’s lomatium is an unassuming little parsley-type herb that you could blink and miss while out for a stroll along the bike path that runs through the wetlands.
The Willamette daisy, a sunflower family member, has bluish lavender blossoms. It is missing from most of its traditional range but still thrives in a few Lane County pockets.
Kincaid’s lupine — with creamy-colored rather than the blue blossoms of its better known lupine cousins — prefers dry upland prairie and is the plant that the also-threatened Fender’s blue butterfly prefers for laying its eggs.
The west Eugene wetlands are home to most of the state’s known Fender’s blue sites, said Janet Lebson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Portland office.
“The west Eugene wetlands have long been one of the largest areas of wet prairie remaining in the Willamette Valley,” Lebson said.
The wetlands figure prominently in the recovery plan Fish and Wildlife completed last year for endangered prairie species, Lebson said. With the guidance from that agency in hand, it makes sense now for the BLM to develop its own management strategy to meet the goals set by Fish and Wildlife, Hardt said.
Managing the land for species recovery doesn’t mean throwing a big fence around it and letting nature take its course, he said.
In the past, the Willamette’s wetlands and prairies thrived through disturbance — periodic flooding of unfettered rivers and streams, and regular wildfires set by Native Americans to keep trees and woody shrubs at bay so that food plants such as camas could thrive.
“We need to reintroduce disturbance or mimic disturbance to control invasive species,” Hardt said.
Public comment will help the agency identify issues that the resource management plan should address, such as possible protection measures and recommendations regarding areas of critical environmental concern, Hardt said.
The BLM’s land includes Stewart pond, an area east of Bertelsen Road and a popular spot with birders; a stretch in the Willow Creek Preserve next to land owned by the Nature Conservancy; wetlands to the west of the bike path that skirts Amazon Creek near Terry Street; and a swath south of Royal Avenue known as Turtle Swale.
The BLM’s planning effort doesn’t surprise its partner landowners, such as the Nature Conservancy and the city of Eugene. Because they all work on restoration, they might be considered the most likely to comment during the BLM’s scoping process, but representatives said they have confidence in the BLM’s management strategies based on years of collaboration.
“They’ve done so much already, not just planning but doing restoration on the ground,” Nature Conservancy botanist Ed Alverson said.
Eugene natural resources manager Eric Wold said much the same thing.
“We’ve worked together on joint management goals for so long, we’re pretty confident that they’ll continue what they’ve been doing,” he said.
The deadline for commenting is July 8.