Lupine and cows: a private lands success story.
Kincaid's lupine (Lupinus sulphureus ssp. kincaidii) is kind of a rock star among plants. It is a showy member of the pea family, with flowers that range from purple to brown in color, palmately compound leaves (i.e. leaflets are arranged like fingers on a hand), and a scent that has been compared to either grape soda or dirty socks. Not only is this lupine a rare species, it is also the primary host plant for the endangered Fender's blue butterfly (Icaricia icarioides fender), a celebrity in its own right.
Both Kincaid's lupine and Fender's blue butterfly rely predominantly on prairie habitat. The prairies of the Pacific Northwest are some of the rarest ecosystems in North America. Prior to European settlement, the valleys were frequently burned by the native people living in the area. When Europeans moved in, they adopted a protocol of fire suppression. Today, less than one percent of the historic prairies still exist. Most of the habitat has been converted to agriculture or urban development, but even areas that have been left alone have rarely survived intact. Without fire or some form of disturbance, the prairies are overrun with woody species and invasive weeds.
Compounding the decline of the prairie ecosystem is the reality that most of this species' populations are found on private property. Plant species on private property have little protection under the Endangered Species Act. Unlike the case with animal species, the law has no prohibitions on the "take" of listed plants, unless the take occurs while state laws are being violated. Landowners are free to manage their threatened or endangered plant populations as they see fit.
So, with all of these factors, how is it that Kincaid's lupine has become, quite literally, a "poster child" for rare species management?
We have achieved success with this species and we're moving towards recovery and delisting. But this success has not resulted from any all-powerful authority. Progress has been achieved almost entirely through voluntary conservation by our partners and private landowners.
One of the greatest examples of how this species has been taken to heart can be found two hours north of Portland, Oregon, near the northern extent of the species' range. On an organic dairy farm in Boistfort Valley, Washington, surrounded by the foothills of the coast range, Kincaid's lupine thrives among a herd of cows.
It Began with Critical Habitat
Ted Thomas, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Washington State Fish and Wildlife Office, says "critical habitat is where it all began." Several historical reports of Kincaid's lupine were documented in this area by the Washington Natural Heritage Program. Six years ago, these locations were included in a proposed designation of critical habitat for this species. Ted called the landowners to engage them in a discussion about this tool--what it is, what it isn't, and what options are available for pursuing an exclusion. Critical habitat is designated in areas that possess habitat features that are necessary for a species' survival. In some cases, an area may be excluded from critical habitat if it is determined that the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion. Mary and John Mallonee were listening. With Ted's help, and with guidance from Marty Cheney of the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Joe Arnett of the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Mallonees created a grazing and management plan. The plan ensures that they can graze their cattle during certain times of the year and rotate their herds regularly while providing habitat for the lupine. During the comment period for the proposed critical habitat, the Mallonees submitted their management plan, which allowed them to be excluded from the final designation.
Bessie Helps the Lupine
The Mallonees' story doesn't end there. The first year after the grazing plan was put in place, they invited a group of 40 biologists out to see the site and prove to the nonbelievers that grazing was compatible with maintaining Kincaid's lupine. In fact, that lupine was not only surviving but expanding.
"The Mallonees have an interesting story because their use of the land creates perfect conditions for lupine," explains Joe Arnett. As organic farmers, they don't use herbicides that could kill or harm the lupines. The absence of herbicide use is likely the reason why Kincaid's lupine is still found on this site while it is absent from neighboring fields.
The grazing practices have also been beneficial. "[The Mallonees] are managing by stubble heights of the forage, the animals aren't out there when the ground is really wet, and, since there's plenty of palatable forage, they have no reason to want to eat the lupine," says Marty Cheney. As Maynard Mallonee, son of the lupine property owners explains, "We call it the field of dreams theory. We maintain the property and the plants are going to thrive as long as we provide them what they want, a safe, friendly habitat."
The thriving populations of Kincaid's lupine have drawn interest from federal, state, and other biologists. The Native Plant Society has visited on field trips, local school groups have been invited to the site, and every year the Mallonees, in conjunction with their dairy co-op, Organic Valley, host a Lupine Pasture Walk. In its fourth year in 2010, the Mallonees had over 130 participants.
Mary and John open up their pasture to showcase not only the Kincaid's lupine, but other native wet and upland prairie plants that are found on the farm, including the mule ear (Wyethia angustifolia), camas (Camassia quamash), pale larkspur (Delphinium pavonaceum), and thin leaved peavine (Lathyrus holochlorus). Their three children, Maynard Mallonee, Jodi Mallonee, and Diana Frampton, all help to prepare for this event. The lupine pasture day now includes a presentation by Joe Arnett on Kincaid's lupine biology, lunch provided by Organic Valley, a botany bike ride, a hands-on soil lesson, and, of course, a walk through the lupine pasture with botanists from the state and federal conservation partners.
Word of Mouth
"The Mallonees are the ultimate family conservationists; they're genuinely concerned about their stewardship of their land and the health of their land is demonstrated by the robust lupine population," says Ted Thomas. Although the Mallonees were more receptive to the idea of conserving Kincaid's lupine than some other landowners, they have shared their positive experience with neighbors and friends who didn't understand their interest in the plant. Mary remembers people telling her how terrible it could be to have a listed species, but she feels very differently about the work they've done and the relationships they've created. "Every time we walk in this pasture with Joe or Marty and other conservation people, we learn something new, every single time ... It's been a wonderful experience."
John and Mary Mallonee have one of the healthiest Kincaid's lupine populations in existence. Their commitment to the species and to sharing their success has encouraged other landowners to talk to Joe, Ted, and Marty. The Mallonees have also done a great deal towards educating others about this rare species by opening up their property and showcasing the lupine. By managing their grazing, the Mallonees have discovered how cows can be a lupine's best friend and how protecting and managing for a listed species doesn't have to cost landowners their livelihoods. If you'd like to learn more about the Mallonee Farm or the Annual Lupine Pasture Walk, please visit malloneefarms.com.
Kate Norman, who until recently worked on Kinkaid's lupine as a botanist in the Service's Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, is now with the endangered species recovery branch in the Arlington, Virginia, national headquarters office. Kate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-358-1871.