New find of rare species prompts local government to protect habitat

Land Letter (A publication of Environment and Energy Daily)
May 20, 2004
Charles Donefer reporter

The discovery of a previously unknown large colony of the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly in rural Oregon has brightened the outlook for environmentalists’ push to protect the rare insect.

Known for the checkered orange, white and black pattern on its wings, the Taylor’s checkerspot is one of the rarest butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, with only about 2,000 spread over 14 known locations in Oregon and Washington, including the latest discovery. The new find, in Beazell Memorial Forest in Benton County, Ore., west of Corvallis, is the second-largest known population, numbering about 500.

Using aerial photography, maps and consultations with botanists, experts with the Xerces Society made the discovery in the few patches of prairie in the region that have not been developed or overrun with invasive non-native plants. The site of the new find is about four acres; the largest population is spread across two acres.

“Most other butterflies have a broader host range,” said Xerces Society executive director Scott Hoffman Black.

Butterfly experts said they are not expecting another similar large find, since the type of prairie suitable for Taylor’s checkerspots has shrunk to less than 1 percent of its historic levels.

“There may be more finds, but there is a limited amount of potential habitat left,” said entomologist Dana Ross, who participated in the butterfly search that lead to the recent discovery.

Officials in Benton County, host to the two largest known Taylor’s checkerspot populations, are taking steps to protect the butterfly. With a grant from the Oregon Water Enhancement Board, the county is working to control the invasive scotch broom and false brome, which destroy the flowers and grasses that make up Taylor’s checkerspot habitat.

“We have a tremendous responsibility to be good stewards for the butterfly,” said County Parks Superintendent Allan Kitzman.

Human interaction is not a major danger, since the prairie habitat survived intact until now precisely because of its remoteness. There is no trail access to the meadow, and Kitzman said the wilderness groups that do go into the area will be warned not to disturb it.

The Taylor’s checkerspot is currently a candidate for the Endangered Species List, but the Xerces Society filed a 60-day notice last month of their intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to force the listing.

In placing the species on the candidate list in 2001, FWS determined that the Taylor’s checkerspot is imperiled enough to warrant endangered status, but the agency lacks the resources to list the butterfly (Greenwire, April 7).

“If something is not done, [the butterfly] might be headed toward extinction,” said Hoffman Black of the Xerces Society. He said a listing could provide funds to monitor the species, a function currently done by volunteers.