May Day was magical at the Thurston County Glacial Heritage Preserve, a more than 1,000-acre expanse of prairie land and oak woodlands sandwiched between Littlerock and Rochester.
A midspring carpet of blue camas and yellow western buttercup wildflowers was on display, framed by big sky vistas of clear blue.
Look closer and other native wildflowers — many of them planted by volunteers — inched above the prairie grasses: golden paintbrush, harsh paintbrush, Oregon sunshine and Puget balsamroot to name a few.
Along the banks of the lazy, meandering Black River, a picket line of gnarly Garry oak trees had shed the skeletal winter look in favor of fuller, soft green spring foliage.
Colorful butterflies flitted and looped a few feet above the ground, searching for mates and stopping to drink the nectar of their host plants. The aerial ballet is soothing, but at the same time there’s a hint of urgency and purpose in the air. These fanciful winged creatures are playing out the final weeks of their complex, metamorphosed lives.
The preserve is a reminder that long-term habitat restoration work can make a difference. When the county purchased the property and staved off development, it was a prairie degraded by invasive plants, including the omnipresent Scotch broom. It was devoid of many of the butterflies, prairie birds and native wildflowers that once dazzled the eye and filled the sky on a warm spring day.
The preserve is also a reminder that the prairie recovery road is a long and winding one, filled with setbacks and advances, discoveries and mystery.
Over the past 20 years, prairie restoration at the Glacial Heritage Preserve and other pockets of prairie land in South Sound has been designed in large part to avoid imperiled prairie species landing on the federal Endangered Species Act list. But in October 2013 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly as endangered and the streaked horned lark as threatened. Last month, four sub-species of Mazama pocket gopher were listed as threatened.
Some of the butterflies I saw were Taylor’s checkerspots, a medium-size butterfly with checkered wings of black, orange and white.
I saw more than I normally would because I was accompanied by Mary Linders, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife rare species recovery biologist who’s been working to bring the butterfly back from the brink of extinction for more than 10 years. She’s part of a larger team, including the South Puget Sound Program of the Center for Natural Lands Management, that uses intensive management tools, including rearing the butterflies in captivity at the Oregon Zoo, and releasing larvae and adult butterflies back into their prairie habitat.
In March, some 5,000 Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars were released at five South Sound sites, including three at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the glacial preserve and another site near Littlerock.
Before its dramatic decline, the Taylor’s checkerspot could be found at more than 70 sites from the grasslands of Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A recent study detected only 14 sites with populations greater than 50 individuals. Linders saw that many and more during her Thursday morning survey.
The camas and Puget balsamroot are a couple of their favorite nectar plants while the larvae gravitate to the harsh paintbrush and the nonnative English plantain.
Linders’ enthusiasm for the colorful winged insect is infectious. We stood transfixed in a small prairie swale alive with a dozen or so blooming wildflower species and several Taylor’s checkerspots, either males in search of females or females seeking a respite from the mating ritual. She urged us to walk in her footsteps to avoid inadvertent harm.
“Females like to crawl around,” she said. “They could be underfoot.”
I asked Linders — she’s one of those invaluable scientists willing to share her butterfly knowledge with anyone who asks questions — what she’s learned about the Taylor’s checkerspot since starting her research all those years ago.
“They’re the most dynamic animal I’ve ever worked with — very opportunistic and flexible in their behavior,” she said. A case in point: They can shift their flight season by as much as six weeks, depending on the weather.
Despite all these adaptive tools, the butterfly almost went extinct.
“We had to lose a lot of habitat to get down to these low numbers,” Linders said.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service estimates that the Pacific Northwest was once home to some 250,000 acres of prairie habitat in Western Washington. Expanded agriculture, urban development and encroachment of trees and nonnative invasive species eroded the habitat down to several thousand acres.
Linders left me with this observation:
“Some people ask, ‘Why should I care about the fate of a butterfly?’ Come out here and then tell me you don’t care.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444