The bright visage of butterflies fluttering in a field of swaying golden paintbrush flowers was a rare sight up until a few years ago.
The perennial flower, native to prairie lands in the Pacific Northwest, became elusive in areas it once blanketed and was listed as threatened in 1997 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Twenty-four years later, the agency has proposed it be taken off the Endangered Species Act — which lists both threatened and endangered species.
Less than 1% of prairie land still exists in Oregon and 10% in Washington. But conservation efforts multiplied the less than 20,000 remaining plants to more than 500,000 throughout Western Washington, southwestern British Columbia, in Canada, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon, according to a news release.
“This is kind of momentous. We’ve been building toward this for a while,” said Andrew Lavalle, public affairs specialist for USFWS Washington.
Prairie land was maintained by Native Americans for thousands of years through controlled burning. But habitat loss, fire suppression, agriculture and urban development led to immense prairie population loss, according to Erin Gray, a USFWS endangered species biologist.
In 1997, only 10 populations of golden paintbrush remained scattered throughout the state and British Columbia. The flower hadn’t been seen in Oregon since the 1930s, she said.
Golden paintbrush are a significant part of prairie habitats that support diverse animals, plants and insects. Their resurgence, Gray said, is vital to these native ecosystems as a whole. The flower, along with other prairie plants, supports pollinators salient to the environment and people. It is a host to the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly that lay eggs on the flower, which young caterpillars later feed on.
“As golden paintbrush returns, the hope is so will other species,” Gray said.
Recovery a collaborative success
Most of the land where golden paintbrush remained was dry and not an ideal habitat for the flowers, said Jeff Chan, a USFWS fish biologist. It took researchers time to realize the flower would thrive better in deeper soils with more moisture.
“You use where they are as a guide to lead you where you think are the best spots to restore,” he said. “Sometimes that can be misleading.”
Recovery efforts began small. Nursery-grown flowers were planted but did not fare well, according to Chan. But through partnerships, USFWS carried out extensive research and analyses, and gained access to land that served as better habitats for seed planting.
Gray said the groups focused on finding ways to control invasive species with mowing, burning and selective herbicide to promote conditions the golden paintbrush would thrive in.
“You can’t just go out into a degraded prairie with lots of invasive species and throw seeds out there,” Gray added. “We also have to maintain these habitats … you can’t just restore them and walk away.”
Much of the new sites for the flowers are on protected land, with no threat of future development or agriculture to harm the species, according to Chan.
The success in reintroducing and conserving the golden flowers, he said, is indicative of the value of collaborative relationships across different groups and agencies, he said. Partners of the effort included Washington State Parks, the Center for Natural Lands Management, the Washington Department of Natural Resources Natural Heritage Program, the Pacific Rim Institute, the Institute for Applied Ecology and others.
“No one agency can do it on its own,” Chan said
Gray said conservation easements that allow for conservation of existing prairies and private landowners who were willing to collaborate also helped the effort immensely.
“Many people make it a point to visit prairies every spring when they’re in flower because they really are phenomenal,” Gray said. “If we can preserve them, we can ensure future generations of people can enjoy as well.”
Correction: An initial version of this story inaccurately stated the flower’s classification. The Golden paintbrush was listed as threatened, not endangered.