LANDOWNERS GROW WILD.
When Warren and Laurie Halsey gaze out the windows of their spacious workshop on a butte west of Monroe, they don't see a hillside infested with exotic grasses.
They see a future home for the Fender's blue butterfly and Kincaid's lupine, a pair of native species on the slide toward extinction.
"We'd like to do something meaningful on the hillsides that adds to the diversity of the ranch," Warren Halsey said.
The couple plan to knock back the weeds and recreate upland prairie habitat that used to cover much of the Willamette Valley 150 years ago. And they're getting help from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the agency in charge of saving the species.
Collaborations between private landowners and public agencies to restore habitat for rare species are raising hopes for the recovery of Willamette Valley plants and animals that have succumbed to agriculture, development and invasive weeds.
"We may be actually able to move these species, if not off the endangered species list, at least into a more secure position on the ground," said Tom Kaye, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis.
Most of the habitat for the butterfly and lupine has been lost or gravely compromised over the past century and a half, placing the species among the rarest of native wildlife in Oregon.
"Without intervention and careful management on our part, we would certainly lose them," said Bruce Newhouse, a Eugene botanist and president of the Native Plant Society of Oregon.
Once prevalent throughout the valley, the butterfly, lupine and other native prairie plants have retreated to isolated pockets, including near Eugene and at a federal wildlife refuge west of Salem.
"We have just 1 percent of this habitat left. That's pretty severe," said Carol Schuler of the Fish & Wildlife Service.
It will take considerable work to improve the quality of native habitat and protect those areas from future threats, said Schuler, who coordinates work on three national wildlife refuges in the Willamette Valley.
"I always say we're losing this habitat by benign neglect," she said.
Much of the habitat was lost as settlers cleared prairies and savannas for crops and pastures beginning in the mid-1800s and as fire suppression allowed Douglas fir to take over the foothills ringing the valley.
More recently, expanding housing developments, Christmas tree farms and vineyards have taken a heavy toll.
Fragile plants and insects that rely on these vanishing native prairies and oak savannas haven't had much of a chance.
"We've hammered them pretty hard," Newhouse said. "For me, it's important to find these remnant ecosystems and restore them the best we can so we can keep some of that natural identity."
Subject of suit
Earlier this year, the Native Plant Society and four conservation groups in Lane County sued the Fish & Wildlife Service over the pace of restoration efforts for the butterfly and lupine as well as a second rare plant, the Willamette daisy.
The plaintiffs claim the agency has moved too slowly in designating critical habitat for the three species since it listed them under the federal Endangered Species Act in early 2000. The butterfly and daisy, found only in the Willamette Valley, are endangered. The lupine, whose range is primarily in the valley, is a threatened species.
Fish & Wildlife officials are working on a regional recovery plan that will benefit all prairie species at risk. As part of that, they're developing techniques to measure how much habitat rare plants occupy - and how much will be needed before the species can be downgraded from threatened or endangered.
In the meantime, they point to progress toward restoration at places such as Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge nine miles west of Salem.
Baskett Butte, rising from the middle of the 2,492-acre refuge, has the largest population of Fender's blue butterflies in most years. That's thanks to a strong presence of spurred lupine, a host plant for the butterfly that's closely related to Kincaid's lupine, said Jock Beall, wildlife biologist for the refuge complex.
But the habitat is jeopardized by encroaching cherry and fir trees, poison oak and exotic weeds, Beall said. And in the absence of the fires that used to burn in the valley each year, even the oaks are growing too thick and chasing out the lupine, he said.
"The butterfly habitat there is gone," Beall said, pointing to an oak grove on a south slope of the butte. "It's essentially gone."
The agency has begun aggressively mowing invasive plants and removing unwanted trees to favor upland prairie and oak savanna habitat at the refuge.
"So we are getting more active here where we have this healthy population, and we'll work out from there," Beall said. "You take care of what you have first."
West Eugene a hot spot
It's the logical approach, Newhouse said.
"As botanists, we tend to concentrate on these remnants and the potential to propagate from the remaining natives," he said.
With that in mind, the west Eugene area has taken center stage in the most promising restoration work trained on Kincaid's lupine and Fender's blue butterfly populations.
Expanding the habitat for those species is one priority of a partnership between the city of Eugene, The Nature Conservancy, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In a few weeks, the partnership will break ground on a wetland and upland prairie restoration project at a 15-acre site near West 18th Avenue and Bertlesen Road, said Ed Alverson, who manages 440 acres of conservancy land in the Willow Creek watershed on the southwest edge of Eugene.
Officials hope to replicate the success of previous projects, including lupine and butterfly recovery in the Willow Creek natural area and at a small study plot off Danebo Avenue.
At the Danebo site, lupine was planted four years ago. Two years later, the butterfly showed up at the site and began laying its tiny eggs on the plant, establishing a new population. The butterflies may have migrated there from the colony at Willow Creek more than a mile away, said Kaye, the Corvallis botanist.
"It's very exciting," he said. "It suggests it may be possible, with strategic plantings, that we could use an if-you-build-it-they-will-come strategy."
That's the idea behind a growing emphasis on the role of private lands in native plant restorations. Some valley residents are jumping at the chance to establish populations of threatened and endangered plants, and the Fish & Wildlife Service is giving them technical and financial support.
Private lands a key
Private lands offer the best opportunity to establish new islands of habitat that could serve as stepping stones between the Fender's blue populations near Eugene and Salem, said Steve Smith, private lands biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service.
The ability to migrate between populations may invigorate the butterfly's genetics and help the species bounce back, botanists believe.
Three miles west of Monroe, the Halseys hope to establish one link in this habitat chain on their 270-acre Raindance Ranch. The two are working with Smith to design a reintroduction plot for Kincaid's lupine and Fender's blue.
They'll begin by clearing weeds and establishing compatible native grasses. Mowing and herbicide spraying will help knock down exotic plants and make way for the lupine, which will be transplanted a few years later. The butterfly may colonize the area on its own or may need to be introduced someday.
The couple previously created a pond in a former field on their land with the agency's assistance. Within a few years, it was teeming with wildlife, including the threatened western pond turtle.
"People get so excited that we're doing this," Warren Halsey said. "It's not an ego thing; it's spreading a happy message."
The Fish & Wildlife Service is working with nearly 50 landowners in the valley on an array of restoration projects this year.
"A lot of people want ponds and waterfowl," Smith said. "When we start talking about upland prairie, it's a whole other game. It's a new science. I don't think there are any experts out there."
The Institute for Applied Ecology is helping assemble a better base of knowledge, Kaye said. The organization conducts research on how best to restore and maintain native valley habitats. It also collects seeds from the listed plants for direct seeding efforts as well as to raise them in greenhouses for transplanting.
"Our success has been good with some attempts with Kincaid's lupine, and other attempts with that same species are a complete failure," Kaye said.
But the biggest impediment to successful restoration work, he said, is the competition from nonnative weeds.
"If we didn't have any exotics, restoration would be a snap," he said.
"There's a long list of invasive grasses, from reed canarygrass to false brome to velvet grass.
"The list is just nauseatingly long and makes restoration and recovery of endangered plant species and their dependent animals very difficult tasks."
Fender's blue butterfly
Profile: Once thought extinct, this small butterfly relies on Kincaid's lupine for food and to procreate.
Habitat: Upland prairie
Profile: Of the pea family, a long-lived perennial herb and host plant of Fender's blue butterfly.
Habitat: Upland prairie
Profile: Of the aster family, a native perennial broad-leaved plant.
Habitat: Wetland and upland prairie