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Fired-up foliage.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Bradshaw's lomatium is such an unassuming little wetland perennial, you could stomp it flat under your boot and not even know it. And if you actually saw it among the tangle of grasses, cinquefoil, lupin and camas, you might figure it for something ordinary such as Queen Anne's lace or a wayward carrot.

But the diminutive Bradshaw's - also known as desert parsley - is rare, declared an endangered species in 1988. It faded from the landscape, a victim of human activities that have gobbled up 99 percent of the Willamette Valley's once-vast wet prairie. For decades Bradshaw's lomatium has muddled along below most people's radar.

But those who tend the wetlands made a gratifying discovery this spring. Following a nasty arson fire that swept through 55 acres of the Willow Creek Preserve last September, Bradshaw's lomatium has made a vigorous comeback.

Blooming in all its understated glory, far enough from bordering West 18th Avenue and Bertelsen Road that casual passers-by would never know, observers have found about 200 of the plants.

Matt Benotsch, stewardship coordinator with The Nature Conservancy, which owns the land, figured this would happen.

Like many wetland prairie species, Bradshaw's lomatium responds well to fire. Before European settlers came to the valley, Indians regularly burned the prairie to keep the forests at bay and to provide habitat for plants such as the camus, whose bulbs were an important food.

The conservancy itself has been known to burn the preserve to encourage just this sort of growth, Benotsch said. But the legal burns are much smaller, and occur only on no-wind days when the smoke will rise vertically and there's little chance of the blaze getting out of control.

The Sept. 14, 2008, fire was an alarming affair, one of four that police are still investigating. They flared up within minutes of each other on a day when the temperature hit 88 degrees and winds whipped the flames southward, threatening nearby homes.

"That was about as bad as conditions could be," Benotsch said.

It took 100 firefighters from eight agencies to quell the wildfires.

This spring's profusion of blooms shows just how many species respond to a disturbance such as fire. The blue spikes of camas lilies and white spikes of unrelated death camas stand out among the spring grasses. Shoots of wild onion are poking up everywhere, their tender buds about to open to purple flowers.

And in the boggier spots, the places where vernal pools form in winter and recede in summer, popcorn flowers are bursting white.

The Nature Conservancy has long managed the land south of West 18th, but acquired the part that burned north of the road in 2004.

Benotsch believed Bradshaw's lomatium would be found in the eastern section of that property because it had been less disturbed by the logging mill that once operated there. But plenty of restoration work needed to be done on the 67 acres, and no one had attempted to make a count of endangered plants.

After the fire, it made sense to go looking specifically for the Bradshaw's lomatium, he said. With invaders such as blackberries and scotch broom burned away, they'd be easier to find, and there probably would be more of them, he said.

So Nature Conservancy staff members searched for the fine feathery leaves rising just 6 to 8 inches from the ground and the tiny yellow flowers blooming on slender stalks. They mapped them with GPS and marked the areas with yellow flags so they could find them again.

The additional numbers are good news, said Kate Norman, a botanist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees recovery plans for endangered species.

"It's always exciting when we find new populations," Norman said. "That's totally right in the area that we'd expect" to find them.

There are dozens of populations scattered around the Willamette Valley and a couple of quite large populations in Clark County, Wash.

Most of Oregon's Bradshaw's lomatium occur in and around Eugene, according to federal surveys. West Eugene has two populations of the plants that together exceed 300,000 individuals. But while that might sound reassuring, the little plant's numbers are known to swing wildly from year to year.

A population of Bradshaw's in the Howard Buford Recreation Area that totaled 23,000 individuals in 1993 dwindled to 3,000 in 1994 and less than 1,000 in 1999, according to a new draft recovery plan for the species. A booming vole population there apparently devoured the plants.

Small populations such as the one at Willow Creek may not be as impressive as larger ones, but they are key to providing the genetic variation that will help the species recover, Norman said.

Benotsch, who brings many people out to the wetlands, often gets asked about Bradshaw's lomatium - what it does, what it's good for.

In fact, the little plant isn't like the showier and also endangered Kincaid's lupine, the only plant where the endangered Fender's blue butterfly lays its larvae.

We don't eat it. It's not famous for any medicinal properties. So why bother saving it, people often wonder.

"What would happen if it was gone? The world would go on, but do we want to have a world of just dandelions and starlings? Or do we want the meadowlark and the Bradshaw's and the bobcat?" - another species that prowls wetland prairie, he said.

Such plants have an intrinsic right to exist, regardless of whether they serve some purpose for people, said Phil Carroll, spokesman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Their role in the ecosystem is what matters, even if it's not well understood, he said.

Carroll then cited a quote from British anthropologist Gregory Bateson: "Nature is not only more complex than we understand a it is more complex than we can understand."
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Title Annotation:City/Region; Last year's arson blaze in Eugene's Willow Creek Preserve has brought some benefits
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 23, 2009
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