WETLANDS HARBOR RARE BUTTERFLY.
Paul Severns has been chasing butterflies since he was 6 years old. Now 28, his personal collection includes between 4,000 and 5,000 specimens from across the West.
All that experience trudging through meadows and prairies paid off this week when Severns stumbled upon a rare butterfly darting around the West Eugene Wetlands. The Great Copper is so rare that everyone thought it was extinct in the Willamette Valley. It survives in Southern Oregon, but was last seen in the valley in 1970. The last record of it in Lane County dates back 50 years.
"Supposedly it was common in the 1920s. Eventually it just kind of disappeared, went off everyone's radar screen," said Severns, who grew up in Springfield and is a graduate student at Oregon State University.
The Great Copper, with a wingspan of less than 2 inches and the temperament of an espresso junkie, flits around in the July heat looking for wildflower nectar while dodging predatory dragonflies.
They don't hold still for long or tolerate advancing spectators. Severns saw what he thought might be Great Coppers in previous outings near Fern Ridge Lake, but he couldn't verify it. While surveying butterflies earlier this week at The Nature Conservancy's Willow Creek Natural Area, he got lucky.
"It flew right in front of me and landed on a Prunella vulgaris plant," a native forb, he said Friday. "I just kind of looked at it, amazed. It was a big deal."
Later that day and about a mile to the north, Severns hit the jackpot. He counted 15 Great Coppers at Tsal Luk-wah, a piece of Bureau of Land Management property west of Danebo Avenue that includes an old airstrip restored to a wetland. To the untrained eye, it looks like a field of weeds.
"But it isn't. It's providing habitat for these rare insects," said Sally Villegas, a BLM biologist stationed across the street in the West Eugene Wetlands headquarters.
Though sure he had correctly identified the species, Severns made it official by collecting a male and a female. He said he wouldn't have sacrificed the pair if he thought it would be detrimental to the survival of the species.
He hopes to present his find this fall when the Northwest Lepidopterist Society gathers for its annual meeting in Corvallis.
The discovery is a testament to more than a decade of work to map, protect and restore wetlands and native plants on the city's west side, said Eric Wold, the city's wetlands supervisor.
"We're all excited because we know the West Eugene Wetlands support a wide variety of plants and animals," Wold said. "This is just one more example of that, which makes it such a special place in the Willamette Valley."
Led by the city of Eugene, BLM, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and The Nature Conservancy, the wetlands partnership is recognized as a national model for how to save natural areas in an urban setting. Nearly $18 million in local, state and federal money has been used to acquire wetlands in the past 12 years. The partnership now owns or holds conservation easements on about 3,000 acres.
As many as 30 species of butterflies inhabit the wetlands. They include Fender's blue, an endangered species whose primary food source is the rare Kincaid lupine. Wetlands managers are trying to protect and expand lupine populations as a way to boost survival of the Fender's blue.
A similar strategy may emerge to help the Great Copper, but biologists aren't sure which plants the butterfly is drawn to for food and as a host for its tiny green eggs. Severns suspects the host plant may be the native dock, a tall, coarse member of the buckwheat family.
The quickest way to verify the host plant is to observe a female laying eggs on it. Absent that, researchers would need to scour the plants for the eggs themselves or return next spring to look for the caterpillar.
The BLM hired Severns and two others to spend about six months this year surveying for butterflies in the wetlands.
It's not the first time Severns has scored a significant find. When he was 13, he discovered a population of Fender's blue butterfly on Coburg Ridge. He didn't know how rare the species was at the time.
Severns said he got hooked on butterflies one summer as a child, when he was bored and a lot of swallowtails were in his backyard.
"I was an impish little kid," he said. "My mom made me a butterfly net from an old broomstick, a coat hanger and a cheesecloth."
Soon he got his hands on a copy of "Butterflies of Oregon," and he was off and running, collecting specimens all over Oregon and throughout the Northwest and Rocky Mountains.
Severns graduated from Thurston High School in 1993 and received a biology degree at the University of Oregon in 1998. He's pursuing a doctorate in botany and plant pathology at OSU and aims to enter the field of conservation ecology research.
Asked what he'd like to find next, Severns names the sulfur butterfly. The yellow-winged species thrives in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeastern Oregon, but he believes it haunts west Eugene as well.
"That would be a nice one," he said.
Paul Severns, the Oregon State University graduate student who rediscovered the Great Copper in this area, takes a closer look at the wetland habitat where the rare butterfly lives. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard The Great Copper butterfly, last recorded in Lane County 50 years ago, has resurfaced in the West Eugene Wetlands and been documented by an OSU student.