A butterfly once thought to be extinct is being reintroduced to an Oregon wildlife refuge in hopes of expanding its range throughout the Willamette Valley.
At the Finley National Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis, the butterflies are slowly crawling out of their chilled containers. When they’re comfortable, they bask in the sun to warm up their flight muscles. Then, if all is well, they fly to the nearby lupines.
The larvae and live butterflies were collected from three sites in Eugene and a fourth west of Corvallis. The work was done by Severns and a contractor named Greg Fitzpatrick.
They place the butterflies in coolers and mark their hind wings with fine-pointed markers.
“We’ve kept them cool, put them in these containers, and basically kept them sedated overnight,” Severns says, watching the butterflies warm and reanimate. “That’s good. That’s kind of what we want. There went one.”
But for Severns, this is more than just research. It’s also very personal.
By the age of 12, Severns already had an extensive butterfly collection. While exploring the hills near Springfield, Oregon where he grew up, he found the Fender’s blue. But his butterfly identification book didn’t mention how the species was thought to be extinct for decades.
Severns never forgot about the Fender’s blue. As a college freshman, he wrote a paper on recovery plans for the butterfly.
Two decades later, Severns is making it happen under a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant called the Cooperative Recovery Initiative.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to do this, so it feels pretty good. I have a lot of hope that this site is going to turn out really well,” he says.
USFWS field biologist Molly Monroe says the application for this project was the highest ranked in the nation (it includes additional work with the Oregon chub and the flowering Bradshaw’s lomatium).
Monroe explains how butterflies require the right host plants to thrive. On Pigeon Butte, a part of the refuge, the butterflies are released onto patches of Kincaid’s lupine and spurred lupine.
The Fender’s blue is thriving in a couple fragmented habitat areas in the Willamette Valley, Monroe says. She hopes this project will show how they take to reintroduction.
Perhaps, down the road, the larger goal would be down-listing or even delisting the butterfly from federal protection.
The team implementing the releases explains how the historic loss of butterflies in the Willamette Valley comes on the heels of the loss of prairies and grasslands. Contributing factors include the conversion of agricultural lands, urbanization, invasive species, and the growth of denser forests.
“The upland oak savannah prairie are one of those rare and declining habitats and to reintroduce an endangered species to that habitat is a nice way to see the full circle,” Monroe says. “It’s really rewarding and gratifying to be able to release them and then come back and see them the next day and watch them lay eggs on plants you helped restore.”
In total, the project involves two weeks of work that ends with recapturing of the butterflies to check their markings.
Scientists say the range of the Fender’s blue butterfly was once throughout the Willamette Valley between Portland and Eugene.
And, maybe one day, it will be again.