Endangered butterfly species makes last stand in Benton County

Endangered butterfly species makes last stand in Benton County
A Taylor's checkerspot rests on a flowering pear tree. The adult butterflies emerge for a brief frenzy of feeding, mating and pollinating for a few weeks each year in April and May before laying eggs for the next generation and dying off. (AP Photo/Corvallis Gazette-Times, Andy Cripe)

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — On a spring afternoon, ecologist Tom Kaye leads the way into a small meadow in the wooded hills west of Corvallis, stepping carefully as he peers at clumps of grass, flower stalks and fiddlehead ferns.

"Come on," he mutters. "Where are you guys?"

Gradually, small patches of color come into focus against the green groundcover: dozens of Taylor's checkerspot butterflies, waiting for the sun.

Once the eyes adjust, the telltale black, orange and white-checked wing patterns are seemingly everywhere.

They aren't, though, the Corvallis Gazette-Times reports.

The butterflies in a cluster of woodland openings form one of only two surviving populations of Taylor's checkerspot in Oregon, both in Benton County. There are 11 enclaves in Washington and one in British Columbia, where fewer than 10 individuals were counted last year.

As recently as 15 years ago, there were 80 populations of Taylor's checkerspot butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, some numbering thousands of individuals. But those numbers started dropping rapidly as the butterfly's prairie habitat disappeared.

Last fall, the butterfly was added to the endangered species list. A federal recovery plan may still be some years away, but conservationists, landowners and government agencies are trying to preserve its habitat.

Benton County last year adopted a conservation plan for a constellation of threatened prairie species, including endangered Taylor's checkerspot and Fender's blue butterflies.

Habitat restoration work is underway at both Benton County sites hosting established populations of Taylor's checkerspot. One is a complex of meadows at the county-owned Beazell Memorial Forest near Kings Valley, and the other is a cluster of three open areas on wooded private property adjoining the county's Fitton Green Natural Area.

Work has included cutting down encroaching conifers, getting rid of invasive species such as false brome and Scotch broom, reintroducing native plants used by Taylor's checkerspot for nectar sources and larval hosts, and cutting "flight corridors" to link isolated patches of prairie habitat.

Entomologist Dana Ross worries those efforts may be helpful but not be enough to save Oregon's colonies.

He has been studying Taylor's populations in Benton County for more than a decade and is widely regarded as the top local expert. His annual site surveys show that the butterfly's numbers can fluctuate wildly.

Last year, Ross estimates, there were just 345 Taylor's checkerspots at Fitton Green and 252 at Beazell. When the numbers dip that low, he said, it wouldn't take much to wipe out one or both of those populations.

"I think they're extremely fragile, and I think they've been so for as long as I've been monitoring them," he said.

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Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press