Endangered butterfly released in refuge

A butterfly once thought to be extinct is being reintroduced to an Oregon wildlife refuge in hopes of expanding its range throughout Willamette Valley.

At the Finley National Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis, the butterflies are slowly crawling out of their chilled containers. When they’re comfortable, they bask in the sun to warm their flight muscles. Then, if all is well, they fly to the nearby lupines.

“This is the first time we’ve had a planned release of Fender’s blue ever,” said Oregon State University researcher Paul Severns, who designed reintroduction of the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly at Finley.

The larvae and live butterflies were collected from three sites in Eugene and a fourth west of Corvallis. The work was done by Severns and a contractor, Greg Fitzpatrick.

They place the butterflies in coolers and mark their hind wings with fine-pointed markers.

“We’ve kept them cool, put them in these containers, and basically kept them sedated overnight,” Severns says, watching the butterflies warm and reanimate. “That’s good. That’s kind of what we want. There went one.”

But for Severns, this is more than just research. It’s also very personal.

By the age of 12, Severns already had an extensive butterfly collection.

While exploring the hills near Springfield, where he grew up, he discovered a Fender’s blue. But his butterfly identification book didn’t mention how the species had been considered extinct for decades.

So he didn’t know about the significance of his discovery until a year later, when he watched a national television news story on someone “rediscovering” the butterfly in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The butterfly was first documented by Ralph Macy, a McMinnville scientist, who named it after his entomologist friend, Kenneth Fender.

Severns never forgot about the Fender’s blue. As a college freshman, he wrote a paper on recovery plans for the butterfly.

Two decades later, Severns is making it happen, working under a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant called the Cooperative Recovery Initiative.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to do this, so it feels pretty good,” he said. “I have a lot of hope that this site is going to turn out really well.”

Field Biologist Molly Monroe of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said the application for this project, which includes work with the Oregon chub and the flowering Bradshaw’s lomatium in addition to the Fender’s blue, was the highest ranked in the nation.

Monroe explained how the endangered butterflies require the appropriate host plants to thrive. On Pigeon Butte, which lies within the refuge, they are being released onto patches of their favorites, Kincaid’s lupine and spurred lupine.

The Fender’s blue is thriving in isolated parts of Lane, Benton and Yamhill counties, where suitable stands of Kincaid’s lupine remain intact.

Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Polk County harbors the largest population of the Fender’s blue. Other species-rich areas are Gopher Valley, northeast of Sheridan, and the Oakridge area, west of Yamhill. These remnants of original prairies continue to shrink.

In March the Yamhill Soil & Water Conservation District unveiled a habitat conservation plan to protect and enhance the survival of the Fender’s blue butterfly and its host plant.

In 2011-12, field surveys led by Yamhill Soil & Water Conservation District identified 7,800 acres as potentially in need of protection.

Yamhill County’s current conservation plan targets owners of land with stands of Kincaid’s lupine by educating them on economic-sound strategies of preserving the endangered species. However, participation from private parties is voluntary.

Monroe said she hopes the Finley Refuge project will show how they take to reintroduction elsewhere. Perhaps, down the road, the larger goal would be down-listing the butterfly or even de-listing it entirely, she said.

The team implementing the releases said loss of butterflies in the Willamette Valley occured with the of loss of prairies and grasslands. Contributing factors included conversion of agricultural lands, urbanization, invasive species and the growth of denser forests.

“The upland oak savannah prairie is one of those rare and declining habitats, and to reintroduce an endangered species to that habitat is a nice way to see the full circle,” Monroe said. “It’s really rewarding and gratifying to be able to release them and then come back and see them the next day and watch them lay eggs on plants you helped restore.”

The work has to be done quickly, because the adult butterfly’s life cycle is only 7-10 days. It spends the majority of its life as a caterpillar.

In total, the project involves two weeks of work that ends with recapturing of the butterflies to check their markings.

Scientists say the range of the Fender’s blue butterfly was once throughout the Willamette Valley between Portland and Eugene. And maybe one day, it will be again.

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