At long last, a homecoming for the Fender’s blue butterfly

At long last, a homecoming for the Fender’s blue butterfly
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This article originally appeared on High Country News .

The entire width of the Willamette Valley can be seen from the top of Pigeon Butte, western Oregon’s William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge. The valley lies between the Coast Ranges and the Cascades. It is dotted with farmland, including vineyards, hazelnut orchards and grass-seed fields. However, the foreground is dotted with grassy meadows, wildflowers, and occasional oaks that trace the land’s contours.

Upland prairie landscapes like these once covered 685,000 acres of the Willamette Valley. By 2000, only a 10th of 1% remained. Their disappearance has led to the decline of many species that once thrived in this area; some are now endangered and others have disappeared. Fender’s blue, a nickel-sized butterfly, is one of the most endangered.

Endemic to this valley, Fender’s blue was first collected in 1929. Shortly thereafter, it vanished, and, for 50 years, no one could find the sapphire-winged insect; it was presumed extinct. But in 1988, a 12-year-old boy netted a few in a meadow outside Eugene, and a lepidopterist officially rediscovered the butterfly the following year. It was added to the endangered species list in 2000, when fewer than 3,400 remained.

Now that the butterfly’s population is quadrupled, the species will be downlisted from endangered and threatened. Fender’s Blue will be the second insect to recover in the history the Endangered Species Act if this status change is completed, which is expected to occur this year.

I came to Pigeon Butte in May to find Fender’s Blue. I wanted to experience the beauty and uniqueness of this rare butterfly. In a time where half-million insects worldwide are at risk of extinction, and the butterfly population is shrinking at an unprecedented rate, I wanted to see this creature in person. It was proof that even in such extreme loss, recovery is possible.

It was only after I gave up and started down the hill that they appeared: two blue butterflies hovering near my knees. I looked under the wings of the one that landed and saw the double arc of black marks that distinguished Fender’s blue from the more common, silvery-blue.

My first thought was one of wonderment: How had this delicate creature, with its tissue-thin wings and sunflower-seed sized body, come to be flitting about on this spring morning nearly 90 years after it was declared lost forever? My second thought was less romantic. It was difficult to imagine the impact that one small blue butterfly could make in an environment facing such a massive ecological crisis.

A FEW YEARS FAR after Fender’s blue was rediscovered, a graduate student named Cheryl Schultz found her way to Eugene, working through blackberry brambles that were taller than she. In the area now known as Fir Butte in the Bureau of Land Management, remnant prairie was found amongst a swarm of woody invasives. A few dozen Fender’s Blues lived in these spaces. Today, much has changed, and the site hosts more than 2,000.

Schultz is a Washington State University professor who has been a leader in Fender’s conservation efforts for almost three decades. She didn’t have a butterfly net as a child. She discovered butterflies through her passion for something else. After the bitterly divided debate over the addition to the endangered species list of the northern spotted Owl, she began her career. The fight pitted environmentalists against timber industry and framed it as an either/or battle between good versus bad, jobs versus Owls. Schultz became wary of such dichotomies. She wanted to see how science could be used to help wildlife and people share a landscape.

“Recovery takes three things. Science, time and partnerships.”

Saving Fender’s Blue was a challenging line of inquiry. Although biologists knew that the butterfly’s habitat was limited and needed to be expanded in order to save it, its range was dominated by human activities such as agriculture, urban development, and private land ownership.

Schultz started by studying Fender’s blues in order to better understand their ecology. How far can a Fender travel? How much nectar is required to sustain a population? What effects do fires and herbicides have on species? She and her colleagues then used their findings to create the U.S. The blue recovery plan of Fish and Wildlife Service Fender. Schultz said that science alone cannot lead to conservation. She said, “Recovery requires three things.” “Science, time and partnerships.”

PERHAPS THIS STORY OF RECOVERYbegins not with an insect but with a plant: Kincaid’s lupine, a perennial wildflower with palm-shaped leaves and spikes of muted purple blossoms. Fender’s Blue, like many butterflies, is closely tied to a specific host plant. Fender’s caterpillar hatches early in the summer and emerges as an adult butterfly in the spring. The host plant, almost always Kincaid’s Lupine, provides the caterpillar with food and shelter until its unfurling from its chrysalis. Tom Kaye, executive director of the Corvallis-based Institute for Applied Ecology told me that they are a species pair. “To conserve the butterfly you have to conserve lupine.”

After the butterfly’s rediscovery in 1989, researchers began searching for Kincaid’s lupine. The plant was extremely rare, just like the insect. It is found in upland prairies, which are ecosystems made of grasses, forbs, and soil that eventually gives way to trees and shrubs. To remain prairie-like, a prairie requires disturbance.

Historically, this disturbance came in the form fires managed and maintained by the Kalapuya, who used the prairies to facilitate hunting and maintain plant communities that provided vital foods like acorns and camas. The burning stopped after settlers forced the Kalapuya to flee their land through genocide, disease, and forced removal. The long-cultivated prairies, which were flat and surrounded by a mild climate and abundant water, were quickly plowed to make way for agriculture fields and settlements.

“To conserve the butterfly, you have to conserve the lupine.”

Without fire, the prairie habitat that remained began to change: Hawthorns and poison oak encroached on it, firs and ash trees took root and the diversity of grasses, flowering plants and grasses that once thrived — including Kincaid’s lupine – withered.

Researchers at the Institute for Applied Ecology have been studying Kincaid’s lupine in an effort to reverse that trend since the organization’s founding in 1999. Many of the conservation strategies that they have developed are based on the way the lupine interacts and forms symbiotic relationships with its environment. Rhizobium lives in nodules attached at the lupine’s roots. They provide a steady supply fixed nitrogen in exchange for nutrients. Inoculation with soil from areas that have strong lupine populations in order to boost the chances of success for new restoration sites is a good option.

A June afternoon, Kaye & I stood among rows of flowering plants at the seed production farm. Kaye lifted one pod from the lupine and held it up to the sky. The husk was lit by sunlight, which revealed the two dark seeds inside. Kincaid said that lupine produces few seeds, especially in wild where weevils and predators are common. It was nearly impossible to collect enough seeds for restoration. Kaye said that she could hold the entire population’s seed production in her hand. “Meanwhile I could hold in my hand the entire seed output of a population,” Kaye told me.

So he set out to find ways to increase the cultivated supply with his colleagues. The organization created a seed production area inside the Oregon State Correctional Institution in collaboration with the Sustainability in Prisons Project. This program has allowed incarcerated people to produce tens of thousands Kincaid’s Lupine seeds and, in turn, adult plants that host Fender’s caterpillars in the restored prairies throughout the Willamette Valley.

ONE LOOK AT THE MORNING I met Soledad Diz, an ecologist from the Institute for Applied Ecology at Baskett Butte, Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge. I found Soledad Diaz, an ecologist with the Institute for Applied Ecology, at Baskett Butte in the Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge. She was seated on a bench, counting flowers to determine nectar resources.

Diaz gestured towards my shoulder. I spun around to see the flickering of a Fender’s blue as it flew off and landed on a nearby lupine. Diaz pointed out the tattered edges that adorned the butterfly’s wings and said, “Looks like an older one.” In the life of a Fender’s blue, “old” means just nine or 10 days. The slopes around us were covered in knee-high grasses and flowers. Checkermallows, mariposa Lily, Oregon Iris, and plenty of host Lupine all bloomed. Blue butterflies flew effortlessly from one plant to another with such carefree buoyancy that it was difficult to remember that they were rushing to find nectar and a mate in the short time they had left.

The Baskett Slough Refuge manager Graham Evans-Peters explained that the Baskett Butte hills are home to the majority of Kincaid’s lupine remnants. These hills make farming more difficult so landowners used these areas for livestock and not crops. Grazing cattle is a way to keep woody encroachment under control and to mown down tall grasses. Evans-Peters also said to me that lupine is not a favorite of theirs.

The Fish and Wildlife Service began restoring Fender’s habitat at Baskett Slough in the mid-1990s. The agency removed encroaching weeds from the existing lupine patches on the butte, then controlled invasive species on the adjacent slopes and replanted them with native vegetation. Fender’s Blue grew with the increase in these plants.

Today, the habitat of Fender is over 100 acres at Baskett Slough. The work is not done. The prairie must be managed. Evans-Peters stated that fire is an important tool for holistic prairie management. It kills some Fender’s larvae but keeps meadows open. This leads to significant increases in nectar and host plant vigor, which in turn, lead to a rise in the number of butterflies over the years.

Burning also benefits a different species interaction, that between Fender’s caterpillars (and their caretakers): ants. Fender’s caterpillars produce nectar that many ant species can eat. The ants are protected from parasites and predators in return. These ant-tenders don’t always appear. Dense grass around caterpillar host plants cools the soil and creates a maze which prevents them from finding the caterpillars in lupine. Researchers suspect that burning removes accumulated thatch. This is one reason fire causes ant-tending to increase. Studies have shown that caterpillar survival rates are three times higher when caretakers are present than when they aren’t.

“The momentum is ripe right now to get that good fire on the ground.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (which include bands of Kalapuya), burns portions of the prairie at Baskett Slough every year. The tribes’ fire program has been reintroducing cultural burning practices to manage the land and improve traditional food sources over the past 20 years. Many agencies are now seeking the expertise of tribes because of growing interest in fire as a tool to restore land and improve traditional food sources. “We want the point where cultural burns have the restoration effort behind it,” Colby Drake, Confederated Tribes burn boss and natural resource manager, said at a forestry summit held in 2021.. “The momentum is right now to get that fire on the ground .”

NINETY-SIX PERCENT of the Willamette Valley is privately owned. Conservation efforts can only be made possible by partnerships with private landowners like Jim and Ed Merzenich from Oak Basin Tree Farm.

A population of Fender’s Blues lives on the Merzenichs farm near Brownsville. It is spread out in a series open meadows, which spill down the southwest slope a forested hillside. These meadows were once dominated by blackberry and were surrounded by fir stands. Jim Merzenich, who is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Institute for Applied Ecology has removed the blackberries and cleared the forest’s connecting corridors. He is now working with Greenbelt Land Trust on establishing a conservation easement that will permanently protect the area.

” Many landowners fear government interference,” Merzenich said to me. “But we haven’t had any conflicts.” Merzenich said that partnerships with federal agencies have provided funding and expertise to restore oak- and prairie habitats on Merzenich’s farm, even as timber harvests continue.

I visited Merzenich’s Prairie in early July. It was too late in the season to see Fender’s blues fly, but Kincaid’s lupine blossomed purple among grassy meadows sprinkled pink with clarkia, and dotted with yellow tarweed. The new blackberry canes were also abundant, reaching into the corridors and resprouting. Merzenich stated that the population is in danger. Merzenich stated that the worst thing that could happen is for people just to ignore these meadows. You’d lose your lupine, lose your butterflies.”

Even the most robust Fender populations are dependent on humans. People, whether they are restoration technicians, landowners, or fire crews, must maintain the habitat of the butterfly. This is necessary to keep out the many plants that may try to invade it. This can seem to undermine the importance of the species’ recovery. Despite decades of conservation, butterflies are far from self sufficient.

“People respond to butterflies in a way that doesn’t always happen with insects.”

But this relationship is not new. The fires that were tended by the Kalapuya would have destroyed the Willamette Valley’s prairies and Fender’s blue long ago. The entanglement is not unique when viewed in the context of other partnerships surrounding the species, such as those entwining host-plant and butterfly, Kincaid’s Lupine and Kincaid’s lupine, caterpillars, and ant-tenders. It seems that self-sufficiency is irrelevant. Survival is a collaborative process.

Butterflies are not great pollinators, despite their poster child status. Their long, thin tongues reach nectar often without touching pollen or stigma. What ecological purpose does their pollination serve, if not pollination? Their niche is to make plant material into food for animals such as the western meadowlark (also a species of conservation concern). Fender’s greatest function may be its ability to attract the attention and care of humans. Schultz stated that people respond to butterflies in a different way than they do with insects.

It’s hard for me to imagine a group of scientists, farmers and incarcerated adults coming together with such resolve in support of, say, an ant or lupine. These organisms, along with the other prairie species whose survival is tied up with Fender’s conservation have benefited from Fender’s efforts. Fender’s recovery can be attributed to the prairie community. However, it is also possible to argue that the butterfly has saved the prairie by recruiting the help of humans. The truth is not so dichotomous, but a complex web of relationships that bind each other.

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