Monday was a reluctant moving day for a batch of brightly colored Taylor's checkerspot butterflies that began life at the Oregon Zoo in Portland and will end it soon on a South Sound prairie preserve near Littlerock.
The release of 60 adult butterflies was the latest chapter in a five-year project to bring the black, reddish-orange and cream-colored insect back from the verge of extinction.
Once found at more than 70 sites from Vancouver Island to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the only self-supported population is limited to, of all places, the artillery impact zone at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The decline, which makes them a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, is traced to fragmented and degraded prairie habitat, development and maybe even climate change, according to Hannah Anderson, a rare species program manager for The Nature Conservancy.
But there’s growing evidence that efforts to establish a population at the prairie site near Littlerock is paying dividends, said state Fish and Wildlife biologist Mary Linders.
“Hundreds if not thousands of these butterflies flew here this spring,” Linders said just prior to the latest release. “It’s very exciting.”
It’s highly likely that the animals flying to the restoration site this spring grew from wild-laid eggs of captive-reared adults, Anderson said.
In past years, Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars were released at the site. This year was the first release of adults, which typically live three or four weeks, breed and die.
The males and females arrived at the site in tight-meshed carrying containers littered with flowers. As a cool wind kicked up and the sun hid behind the clouds, the butterflies had to be coaxed from their travel cases.
The released butterflies flittered about, landed on native sunflowers called Puget balsamroot to feed, and lit on the ground to avoid the gusting winds. When the sun broke out, so did some mating behavior.
“The sunlight really energizes them,” Linders said. “Every stage of their life cycle is influenced by the sun.”
The site has several nectar and host plants and is off-limits to the public during the spring. Linders asked that the site not be identified to avoid attracting butterfly collectors or curiosity seekers.
The captive breeding and recovery project is funded chiefly by the Department of Defense, which has contributed $2.6 million in the past four years to projects that protect and restore prairie-dependent species found on the military base, which has some of the largest tracts of native grasslands left in Western Washington.
By aiding rare prairie species on public and private lands near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Army reduces the risk of plants and animals landing on the endangered species list, which could restrict military training and other activities at the base.
The Taylor’s checkerspot is worth saving for other reasons, Linders and Anderson said.
“It’s just a bug, but it’s a very beautiful bug,” Linders said. It also flies in large numbers even in windy weather and serves as an important pollinator for native prairie plants.
“The butterfly is part of the biodiversity of a very fragmented prairie ecosystem,” Anderson said. “Plus, people have an emotional connection to butterflies.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org