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On A Mission To Save A Butterfly

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GPS Coordinates to Driftwood Beach State Recreation Site: 44.464185, -124.079123

On a cool summer’s day, a line of teenagers dressed in bright purple T-shirts wound their way through the coastal hills of Driftwood Beach State Recreation Site, south of Newport. They are led by Dani Padilla, a ranger with Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD). Dani frequently organizes youth to help with a variety of conservation service projects, but the kids in the purple T-shirts have come a particularly long way — from York, Pennsylvania — to assist a very small coastal resident.

The seaside hoary elfin butterfly (Incisalia polia maritima) is a reclusive insect that is only known to live in three places on the Oregon coast. Its population at Driftwood Beach is uncertain, but thought to be less than twenty individuals.

“It’s like a treasure hunt to find these butterflies. They are very shy around people so as soon as we approach they usually disappear,” said Vanessa Blackstone, an ORPD wildlife biologist who helps oversee the recovery process for the insect. “Of course, this makes it much harder to know exactly how many there are out there.”

To bolster its numbers, Dani has the teen volunteers remove invasive plants from the coastal bluffs. The teens laugh when it’s suggested that they came all the way from Pennsylvania to pull Oregon’s weeds.

“We don’t see it that way,” said Jake Hall, a participating 15-year-old. “Our youth group is called Journey to Adulthood from St. Andrew’s Church. All the members get to go on a pilgrimage. We connect to God through nature and through the work we do to protect His creation, which is the Earth.”

“What we’re doing is removing grass so this kind of plant, called kinnikinnick, can grow and these endangered butterflies have something to eat and a place to lay their eggs.” added Zack Paulsen, also 15.

Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is not just any coastal plant. Its abundance is vital to the continued survival of the hoary elfin.

“The butterfly uses kinnikinnick exclusively through its entire life-cycle, from providing food, to being a place where they lay their eggs and the caterpillars over-winter. Even when the butterfly flies, it stays pretty low to the ground so it’s close to the plant,” explains Vanessa.

Becky Van Kirk, one of Journey to Adulthood’s older members, was philosophical about the work she did in the hills above the beach. “We’re staying here in Oregon for a week and we’re doing all this cool stuff and I feel it’s really important to give back so Oregon stays beautiful,” she said. “It’s just pulling up grass to us, but to the butterfly it’s super important.”

“There are lots of reasons to protect this butterfly, even though to some people it may seem rather insignificant,” said Vanessa. “We know things like butterflies play an important role in ecosystem functions like pollination. So lately we’ve been hearing a lot about how important bees are to human agriculture and we don’t question that value because we’ve studied it, but in truth we don’t fully know [the elfin butterfly’s] role as a pollinator or what would happen if they wink out.”

Even if a park visitor doesn’t participate in a restoration project like this one, Vanessa says everyone can help the butterflies.

“Be aware of where you’re walking,” she suggested. “Taking a shortcut through vegetation could damage the eggs or pupa of these butterflies without us even knowing the damage we’re doing. Stay on paths and control your dogs if they’re hiking with you. Remember, we’re stewards of this habitat and by doing some very simple things we can really help this coastal ecosystem thrive.”

Through continued stewardship efforts like those from Journey to Adulthood, Dani is optimistic about the butterfly’s future.

“I would love to have a day where I took a field trip, a group of students out to see a bunch of butterflies in the air,” Dani smiled. “I hope it’s not too far away.”

NOTE: This species is at high risk for extinction, and the loss of even a few individuals could mean the end of them at Driftwood Beach forever. Do not collect butterflies for any purpose.

Related Features: Saving the Silverspot | Meadows for the Silverspot | Endangered Oregon: The Vanishing Honey Bee

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