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A Coastal Prairie Companion or The Day We Traded Keyboards for Dibbles

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Photo by Patrick Stark, USFWS (see full event photo gallery on Flickr)

By Patrick Stark, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The crisp air invigorating our lungs was all the reminder we needed that this would be a workday unlike most. Instead of the hum of fluorescent lights, the honking of nearby Aleutian Canada geese would serve as our soundtrack. The elusive sun even made an appearance on this sublime early-November day, adding outer-warmth to the inner-joy felt by two dozen urban-based U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff, who had the opportunity to step away from the office and directly connect with the resources vital to the Agency’s conservation mission.

The destination was Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a small but important dot on the 150 million acre map known as the National Wildlife Refuge System, with a purpose (and panoramic view) that’s hard to beat. The main portion of the refuge, known as Cannery Hill (including a recently added 102 acres), is nestled on a peninsula between Oregon’s Nestucca Bay and the Pacific Ocean. An easy and beautiful two-hour drive connects the refuge to the 2.2 million inhabitants of the Portland metro area, including today’s crew of USFWS personnel eager to work with the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) to restore habitat for a Federally threatened butterfly.

It’s Good to Get Your Hands Dirty Once in a While

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USFWS silverspot expert, Anne Walker (left), and Deputy Project Leader for the Oregon Coast Refuges, Rebecca Chuck (right), team up to restore habitat for the Oregon silverspot butterfly. Photo by Patrick Stark, USFWS

Without a doubt there is a romantic side to conservation, conjuring images of airboats cruising through wetlands, hip waders glazed in the water of salmon-filled streams, and muddy boots trekking through wilderness in search of rare wildlife. There are also many who support on-the-ground conservation less directly, though no less passionately. It takes budget analysts, IT specialists, administrative professionals, and myriad other support positions to deliver conservation on behalf of wildlife and the American people.

For practical reasons, these support activities are often centralized in larger cities. A volunteer opportunity like this one at Nestucca Bay NWR is so important because, like many of the 80% of Americans who now live in large cities, these support staff can fall into a pattern of not directly connecting with the natural resources so important to all of us.

Thankfully, someone noticed this reality and set out to change it, even if for a day. Rebecca Chuck, Deputy Project Leader of the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, saw an opportunity to connect folks with nature while advancing Endangered Species Act recovery efforts on the refuge. In coordination with IAE, the refuge is restoring coastal prairie habitat in hopes of reintroducing the Federally threatened Oregon silverspot butterfly. To do that, the silverspot needs appropriate vegetation in which to lay eggs and feed their larvae, as well as a preferred nectar-bearing flower on which to feed after they emerge as adult butterflies.

Getting the Early Jump with the Early Blue

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From its humble beginnings, the USFWS and IAE intend to create a flourishing landscape of purple and white, fluttering with the activity of pollinators. Top photo by Patrick Stark, USFWS. Bottom photo USFWS.

The USFWS crew would be assisting with part one of that equation, planting early blue violets (Viola adunca) to support the butterfly at the egg and larval stage. Though to even reach this point, a lot of effort first went into developing a detailed restoration plan, compliments of IAE. The plan provides prescriptions for all mowing and weed control, as well as short-term and long-term management and maintenance practices. Refuge staff prepared the ground through a process of mowing and prescribed burns intended to control non-native grasses, such as reed canarygrass and orchard grass, that would otherwise choke out the flowers. Those grasses were then replaced by sand fescue, a native grass that makes for a better companion to the flowers.

As explained to us by USFWS biologist and silverspot expert, Anne Walker, this is admittedly an experimental process. Nestucca Bay NWR is within the known historic range of the silverspot, though no butterflies currently inhabit the refuge. Through IAE’s restoration plan, best-known practices are being applied to re-establish native coastal prairie vegetation. The fact that butterflies aren’t present actually affords flexibility in grass-control measures, such as the application of herbicides, that would otherwise be dangerous to the silverspot. Ultimately, however, only time will tell if native flowers can once again take hold on this remnant of historic coastal prairie habitat.

Measuring Accomplishment Through Plugs and Partners

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Collectively, volunteers will plant 11,000 early blue violet and 6,300 pearly everlasting flowers atop Nestucca Bay NWR’s Cannery Hill. Photos by Patrick Stark, USFWS

After an orientation from aptly named IAE restoration ecologist, Ian Silvernail, it was time to set aside our word-per-minute typing talent and become plants-per-minute restoration wizards. Our larger planting group of two-dozen was broken into teams of three, comprised of a dibbler, a plug remover, and a planter. And I can attest that after a few hundred iterations, we were a finely honed machine that would have brought a smile to the face of Henry Ford.

In the end, we would plant 4,200 violet plugs that day, part of 11,000 violets and 6,300 pearly everlasting flowers (the nectar source) that will ultimately reach the ground through the efforts of some very important partners. In particular, five years of students from the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School have connected with this restoration effort as they began their generous work in 2008 by planting nectar flowers along the Pacific View Trail. The staff from the North Face store in Lincoln City and IAE’s Americorps crew have also pitched in on behalf of silverspot recovery.

Learn More about the Oregon Silverspot Butterfly and Coastal Prairie Recovery

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The Oregon silverspot butterfly. Photo by USFWS

Species recovery efforts require partnerships, and the silverspot has a lot of people in their corner. Check out these additional resources, including a pretty slick video from our friends at the Oregon Zoo.

Looking for a volunteer opportunity? Find a Refuge near you.
Additional Photos from the Planting Event
Oregon Silverspot Butterfly Fact Sheet
Coastal Prairie Restoration Fact Sheet
Oregon Zoo Silverspot Recovery Info

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