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Rare Prairie Butterflies Threatened by Development - 2003-03-15

The Northwestern United States was once covered by vast prairies that have since been eaten up by cities and farms. Butterflies, like the Taylor's Checkerspot, lived in those prairies, and now that their homes are gone they're on the verge of extinction. Today, the Checkerspot can be found in only four places in the Northwest.

The only Taylor's Checkerspot habitat known to exist in Oregon is about the size of two football fields. Walk over the hill and down to the small prairie in April and May, and you're likely to see hundreds of the black, orange and white butterflies. But this time of year, they're still caterpillars. At first they're difficult to find, but Oregon State University Entomologist Dana Ross has an eye for them. "What we're seeing here is small, dew-covered caterpillars every foot or so, throughout where we're standing," he said. "So, we're going to have to be careful that we retrace our footsteps carefully so as not to step on any because there's probably, literally, hundreds within a five or 10-foot radius."

Mr. Ross says the caterpillars are feeding on their favorite planta leafy ground-hugger that looks like a weed to the untrained eye. But this plant is specialit's one of only two the Taylor's Checkerspot will eat.

The Xerces Society has been keeping an eye on the Checkerspot. The group, which is named for an extinct blue butterfly from California, is dedicated to protecting butterflies and their habitats. Recently, the Society joined several other environmental groups in asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put three butterflies on the endangered species list.

Xerces spokesman Scott Hoffman Black says, of the three, the Taylor's Checkerspot is the closest to extinction. He says development and agriculture have taken over much of the butterfly's prairie habitat… which is also under attack from invasive species and encroaching forests. Historically, he says, frequent wild fires kept the forest in check. "Without fire what you see is conifersmostly Douglas Fircrowding in from all sides and it's going to be really important to manage those trees," said Scott Hoffman Black. "Now, that doesn't mean coming in to do large scale logging or anything like thatwhat that means is coming in and insuring that as the small trees encroach into the site that they are taken out right away so they don't shade out the host plants and the nectar sources."

Mr. Black says one of the four places in the Northwest where the Taylor's Checkerspot survives is at Fort Lewis near Olympia, Washington. But, according to Army Biologist Dave Clouse, despite the military's conservation efforts, the butterfly's numbers have dropped dramatically. "Well, like, in the mid '90s there was one site where there was several hundred observed and then last year, I think they discovered there was only three or four or something like that," he said.

Those few butterflies were found in what the Army calls the "impact area" in civilian language that's the bombing range. Fortunately, the Taylor's Checkerspots cluster on the edge of the range, where soldiers are unlikely to disturb them. Still, Scott Hoffman Black with the Xerces Society says prairies like these need federal protection because there are so few of them left. Pointing to the environmental campaign to save the ancient old-growth forests, he imagines a movement developing around protecting and maybe even restoring prairies. "I see it as the old growth movement was 20, 25 years ago," he said. "25 years ago there weren't very many people talking about old growth. But that had just started and it became a major campaign. I think we now have some voices that are talking about prairies and prairie protection and I see that coalescing to a bigger movement."

Just as the effort to protect old growth trees changed the Northwest timber industry, a movement to protect prairies could affect a variety of groups most notably property developers and ranchers.

Myra Hyde with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association says the best way to get her members to help butterflies is to use incentives rather than regulations. She suggests the Xerces Society work with landowners to improve habitat and bring back the butterflies… instead of trying to get an endangered species listing. "Once you get into the buttin' heads situation, you've already lost the battle because people are gonna get backed into their corners and they're gonna start fightin' for their position rather than try and find a middle ground," she said.

But the environmental coalition is pursuing an ESA listing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has added the Taylor's Checkerspot to its candidate lis, where it could linger for a long time before the agency gets the money to assess its status.

In recent years, the work agenda of the Fish and Wildlife Service has been largely driven by the lawsuits it has lost. Realizing that, the Xerces Society is considering whether to file the first court case in its history, in an effort to put the Taylor's Checkerspot at the top of the agency's "to do" list.