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Save Butterflies and Horned Birds

Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. Photo by Aaron Barna USFWS.

You’ve probably never seen a streaked horned lark — a little bird with feather tufts on its head that call to mind the horns of a teeny-tiny buffalo — because they are only about 6 to 8 inches long and there are only about 1,600 of them left in the world. But some of the few little yellowish and brown birds that remain live in the Willamette Valley and they have a liking for airports. The streaked horned lark and a fellow prairie species, the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, have been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as additions to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants this month. 

 To be precise, it’s less that the birds, which once ranged from southern Oregon up into Canada, like hanging out with planes and helicopters and it’s more that they like the grass around the airports, according to Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “The lark likes short grass,” he says. “All their habitat has been lost to agriculture, to development and to forest encroachment because there’s no fire anymore. Airports turn out to be good habitat.” The USFWS proposal also calls for designating 6,875 acres of protected critical habitat for the butterfly and 12,159 acres for the bird in Washington and Oregon. 

The lark and butterfly became candidates for the endangered species list in 2001 and lingered there, while their numbers dwindled, for more than 10 years. Greenwald says a 2011 settlement between CBD and USFWS means the agency has to make decisions on endangered species listings for 757 species by 2018. 

The streaked horned lark and the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly are now found only at a handful of scattered locations around the Puget Sound, Olympic Peninsula, Washington Coast, Columbia River and Willamette Valley, according to the CBD. Greenwald says the Willamette prairies are a highly endangered ecosystem, with “only 2 percent left of what they used to be.” He adds, “Protecting these species will protect this really rare habitat.”

Native American burning in the valley used to produce the kind of habitat the lark and checkerspot need — the same habitat needed for the already listed Willamette daisy, Kincaid’s lupine and Fender’s blue butterfly. The species depend on “disturbed” landscapes, according to the USFWS, which says that the largest known populations of streaked horned larks breed in the southern Willamette Valley at the Corvallis Municipal Airport and on the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. 

Because the birds like airports and farms despite their use of heavy equipment and pesticides, USFWS is putting forth a “4(d) rule,” a special type of rule that can increase or decrease a species’ protections. In this case the agency would like to relax the “take” prohibitions related to airport and agriculture in the habitat area since things like airport maintenance actually seem to benefit the lark. When a species is “taken” it is harassed, captured or killed. 

The USFWS is taking comments on the proposed endangered species listings through Dec. 10. For more information go to at http://wkly.ws/1dd