Saving the Fender’s blue butterfly
By: Hannah Hoffman, Yamhill News Register December 10th, 2010
For such an obscure and benign bug, the Fender’s blue butterfly has gained an awful lot of attention lately from governmental, private and nonprofit parties. And all that attention has begun to pay off, as its habitat has become the subject of a concerted local protective effort.
When Yamhill County won a three-year, $391,000 federal grant to develop a protection program, then reversed course and turned it down by 2-1 vote of the commissioners, the Yamhill Soil & Water Conservation District stepped in.
Tim Stieber, the district’s executive director, had helped draft the county’s grant application in 2008, when Commissioners Kathy George, Leslie Lewis and Mary Stern were all in agreement. And he wasn’t about to let the money slip away without a fight when George and Lewis changed their minds in May.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agreed to let Stieber re-tool the grant, originally aimed at underwriting a county protection plan, to instead underwrite a district program aimed at helping private landowners preserve butterfly habitat. While the county is trying to fend off federal litigation for failing to protect an endangered species, threatened by a coalition that includes the nationally prominent Center for Biological Diversity, the district will be attempting to foster private protection in lieu of public.
The rare and geographically isolated Fender’s blue is the poster child for the effort. However, it has an important co-beneficiary, its host plant, the also rare and geographically isolated Kincaid’s lupine.
The butterfly is finicky. It lets its eggs hatch, its larvae hibernate and its next generation take flight only through Kincaid’s lupine.
Unfortunately, the symbiotic plant and animal pair is a relic of the prairie habitat that once covered vast swaths of the Willamette Valley, but is now relegated to tiny patches. And Yamhill County harbors some of the best remaining habitat.
Stieber said he and his colleagues are working to help property owners identify and preserve pieces of prairie on their land. He said 20 to 30 have already agreed.
He said the grant covers the cost of acquiring conservation easements on private property, ensuring the owners will be compensated. However, he said some local landowners so relish their butterfly habitat, they’ve already begun voluntarily investing some of their own money.
Stieber said the ultimate goal is to remove the Fender’s blue from the Endangered Species List. He said Kincaid’s lupine is actually fairly robust under the right management, so saving the butterfly isn’t nearly as complicating as saving the spotted owl or native salmon.
He said the district has already lined up a couple of key allies.
He said the Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey recently identified a large piece of its newly established conservation easement as suitable butterfly habitat. And he noted the Nature Conservancy had acquired 272 acres of Fender’s blue habitat near Sheridan and turned it into the Yamhill Oaks Preserve.
At the end of the day, the butterfly may end up faring better than the county as a result of the grant changing hands.
The Portland-based Xerces Society, the Yamhill Watershed Stewardship Fund and three individuals with Fender family ties, Bill Fender, Dorothy McKey-Fender and Laura McMasters, teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity in providing the county with 60 days notice of intent to sue in federal court.
Unless the county takes action to rectify the situation by Jan. 7, Scott Black of the Xerces Society wrote in a certified letter, the coalition plans to file suit in U.S. District Court in Portland.
Because Soil & Water now has a binding contract with Fish & Wildlife, there is no undoing the grant rejection. And remedial action would have to be funded by other means.
The commissioners have not yet had a chance to discuss the threatened legal action. They are expected to do so in executive session, which is allowed under Oregon’s public meetings law to discuss pending litigation.
All three have declined comment in the interim, on advice of county counsel.