Spotted: more checkerspots

May 10, 2004
By Scott Maben
The Register-Guard

CORVALLIS – It’s fitting that a rare butterfly is proliferating in the hills west of here – the newfound population of up to 500 thrills conservationists and gives them hope that the colorful Taylor’s checkerspot will fight back from near extinction.

The recent discovery ought to tickle Oregon State University fans, too: The butterfly has distinct orange and black checkers with white markings.

The new colony – along with a previously known population of about 1,000 on nearby private and county park land – accounts for about three-quarters of all Taylor’s checkerspot known to exist. The rest are scattered across 10 sites in Western Washington.

“It’s extremely exciting, because this is the largest population we have on publicly managed land,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society. The Portland-based invertebrate conservation group has asked the federal government to declare Taylor’s checkerspot an endangered species.

“We found the population where they’re already trying to do habitat restoration,” he said.

It’s a pat on the back for Benton County, which has worked to improve habitat and preserve pockets of native prairie to accommodate the butterflies, which feed on wild strawberry, hairy cat’s ear, rosy plectritis and other native wildflowers.

An ecologist looking for the species found the latest population in some meadows at the county-owned Beazell Memorial Forest north of Philomath late last month.

“It’s an excellent indicator that we’re doing something correctly,” county Parks Director Jerry Davis said. “This shows we have some really nice property and what we’re doing is not messing it up.”

The management plan for the forest outlines oak preservation, meadow enhancement, habitat restoration and selective tree cutting as an ecological tool.
Significant loss of upland prairie in the Willamette Valley over the past century and a half has nearly wiped out the butterfly, Hoffman Black said.

Scientists estimate less than 1 percent of this important habitat remains in isolated spots that continue to be threatened by invasive weeds, encroaching fir trees and development.

“As the prairie habitat has gone, the butterfly has gone,” Hoffman Black said.

Preserving what’s left and opening up new habitat are essential steps toward preventing Taylor’s checkerspot from disappearing forever, he said.

“Just like folks who have advocated for protecting the last of the old growth forests, we need to advocate for the last of the prairies,” he said. “It may not be as dramatic, but it’s just as important.”

The Xerces Society began working to protect the butterfly and its habitat four years ago and has developed a close partnership with Benton County, which is trying to protect the largest population – about 1,000 – in and around the parks department’s Fitton Green Natural Area, north of Philomath.

Hoffman Black’s group also shares conservation ideas with private landowners who have meadows suitable for the insect.

But those efforts alone aren’t enough, he said. The plight of the butterfly persuaded the society to pursue its first-ever lawsuit. It recently filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place Taylor’s checkerspot on the endangered species list.

The agency lists Taylor’s checkerspot as a candidate for the list, but often it takes pressure from environmental groups to compel the agency to formally list a species.

Hoffman Black said the species was known to occupy more than 70 sites as recently as the mid-1970s. “We’ve lost at least 60 populations in the last 30 years,” he said. “So we know this butterfly is endangered and needs to be protected. We do not want to sit on our hands.”

Name: Taylor’s checkerspot (Euphydryas editha taylori)

Description: Orange and black checkers with white markings and a wingspan of less than 2 1/4 inches.

Past range: Grasslands, prairies and oak woodlands of Vancouver Island, Puget Sound basin and Willamette Valley.

Present range: Two populations west of Corvallis and 10 smaller populations near Olympia and Port Angeles, Wash. Only about 2,000 remain altogether.

Threats: Primarily habitat loss due to agricultural and urban development, fire suppression and forest encroachment, livestock grazing and invasion by native and non-native plants.