Updated: Nov 14
Last summer, I wrote about a visit I made to the pumice desert east of Crater Lake, to check up on our population of Leona's Little Blue, the tiny blue that is Oregon's only endemic butterfly species. It was a brief visit, and I left the site with more concerns than hopes, and more questions than answers. In my blogpost, I shared some of these concerns and questions about this tiny, relatively unknown blue. What followed over the next 9 months was just what I'd hoped for.
My piece on Leona's Little Blue was based on a single afternoon site visit and with virtually no contact with others who might know more about the status of this tiny blue and its unique habitat. I knew I was thinking in a vacuum, but I wasn't sure who had their finger on the pulse of Leona and her range-limited population. That blog post helped connect me with just the people I needed to learn from.
One of the first connections came via an email from Dr. David James, a Monarch expert from Washington State University, who had done repeated transect surveys for Leona over several years. He shared his view that the tree removal, which may have looked damaging while it was happening, actually was probably enhancing the habitat for Leona by creating more suitable open, meadow habitat for its larval hostplant, Spurry Buckwheat (Eriogonum spergulinum). Ecologically, that made a lot of sense to me, but I hadn't considered it when I saw what looked like habitat devastation from tree removal in the field in 2022.
That contact led me to OSU Entomologist Dana Ross, who I'd known for years, but didn't realize had done many of the early surveys when Leona's Little Blue was proposed for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 2010. Dana, in turn knew Debbie Johnson who had gathered and mapped important data about the landscape of Leona and its unique characteristics. Debbie introduced us to Alta Harris, a biologist for the Klamath Tribes, whose ancestors had stewarded this land for thousands of years. We learned that in 1954 the Klamath Termination Act was passed by the US Congress, which took 1.8 million acres of land from the Tribe through condemnation, including the lands where Leona resides.
As each person helped connect me and the growing group to additional concerned scientists, academics, agency staff, butterfly watchers, and land managers, the group expanded and we all learned more. The group, now known as the Leona Working Group met four times in 2022-2023, sharing information, and thoughts on how to go about providing on-going stewardship for this rare butterfly and its habitat.
How rare is Leona's Little Blue? It may just be the most range-restricted butterfly on the planet, according to Dr. James. The entire known range of the butterfly comprises just 15 square miles. And remember this is not a subspecies--this is the range for the entire species. It is found nowhere else on the planet.
Over our series of four online meetings, the group decided that a meeting in the field, within the Leona's Little Blue habitat, would be a good next step. We hoped to bring in folks from additional agencies and non-profits as well as representatives from the company that owned most of the land, to help them learn more about our rare and endemic blue. We also hoped to entice the Oregon Field Guide staff from Oregon Public Broadcasting to film the meeting, the butterfly and the habitat for a program highlighting the rarity and unprotected status of the Leona's Little Blue (they expressed interest, but weren't able to schedule filming this year--we are hoping for next year).
The field meeting took place on July 6, 2023. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in the pumice desert. We met adjacent to Sand Creek, which flows through the pumice deposits that blew out of an exploding Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. About a mile away was an area of recent tree removal, where felled trees were stacked among the clearings. Looking to the east, Mount Scott towered above the high desert pumice flats, with bright yellow Sulphur Flower Buckwheat in the foreground. A mile to the east, Hwy 97 roared with its constant flow of trucks and cars.
Fifteen people drove from one to several hours from various parts of the Northwest to attend the meeting. Seven members of the Leona Working Group made it: Sue Anderson (Oregon Chapter of NABA), Neil Björklund (ButterfliesofOregon.com), Amanda Egertson (Deschutes Land Trust), Alta Harris (Klamath Tribes), David James (WSU), Debbie Johnson (Applegate Forestry), and Dana Ross (OSU). Our guests included: Chris Johnson (Shanda Corp.), Aidan Myers (Shanda Corp.), Sarah Ratay (The Nature Conservancy), Cory Galván (USFWS), Tom Valente (ODA), Eric Osbourne (ODOT), Lori Humphreys (Oregon Chapter of NABA), and Alex Corsten (interested butterfly enthusiast).
The meeting started off with introductions all around, and we warmly welcomed Chris Johnson and Aidan Meyers from Shanda Corporation, the company that owns the majority of Leona's known range.
Dr. James then gave the group an overview, including the discovery of the Leona's Little Blue by the late Harold Rice, the proposal for listing of the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act in 2010 and the Federal rejection of that listing petition in 2015. He and Dana Ross then shared the results of early surveys as well as recent surveys showing the apparent rise and fall of the population from year to year.
Debbie Johnson then gave us the big picture of the geology and geomorphology of the areas, describing the alluvial fan through the pumice that comprises the range of Leona. We discussed one of the great mysteries of Leona's Little Blue: Why does it occupy only a portion of the pumice desert where Spurry Buckwheat grows? Why hasn't it expanded into adjacent areas that appear to have essentially the same habitat character as where it does live? We don't know. Several people have noted that in the area where Leona lives, the pumice soil has tiny specks that sparkle in the sun, an apparent metalic component to these pumice soils. Could the soil "sparkles" have a role? Again, we don't know.
Chris Johnson, Land Manager for Shanda Corp., joined us in the discussions with questions and observations. He reiterated what he had shared with me over the phone--Shanda Corporation's land managers were interested in Leona's Little Blue and wanted to learn about it. Chris was happy to hear that the tree removal they'd done to address a Pine Saw Fly infestation appeared to have been beneficial to the butterfly and the buckwheat it depends on. Indeed, when we later visited an area of recent tree removal conducted by Shanda Corp., we found thicker patches of Spurry Buckwheat, and greater numbers of Leona's Little Blue than we'd seen in nearby undisturbed areas.
After the presentations we spent an hour meandering through the meadows looking for butterflies, especially, of course, Leona's Little Blue (LLB for short). Occasional cries of success popcorned across the site, and many photos of LLB were taken. Dr. James had netted a Leona's blue and had placed it in a viewing jar, enabling us to literally get nose to proboscis with Leona. People repeatedly marveled at how very small it is.
Eventually, sun, heat and hunger drove us back to the shade near Sand Creek for lunch and more discussion. We talked about what we felt was next in our quest for long-term stewardship of Leona's Little Blue and the sparkly pumice desert she lives in. To start, we began to name many of the questions that we didn't have scientific answers for: What was limiting Leona to these 15 square miles? What part, if any, did the metallic sparkles play? How far can and does Leona fly from where it leaves its chrysalis? How fire resilient is Leona--would a large intense fire during the flight season spell doom? What land managment practices would be beneficial for Leona and Spurry Buckwheat? What land management practices would be detrimental?
These as-yet unanswered questions led us to a discussion of near-term funding needs--funding for research. How could we successfully steward these species and their habitat with so many unanswered questions? Yes, we concluded, we will need research funds. The Leona's Working Group members agreed to talk about research needs and the needed funding at our next meeting in the fall.
The conversation then turned to considerations about long-term ownership options for the land. What long-term ownership arrangement would best serve long-term stewardship of Leona's Little Blue and Spurry Buckwheat? Would Shanda Corp. be willing to sell an easement or fee title? Could a conservation easement be effective? Could the land be returned to its original owners, the Klamath Tribes for long-term stewardship? Is there a win-win kind of outcome for all these interests?
Interestingly, there was very little conversation about another ESA listing petition. My decades of work on the West Eugene Wetlands Management Plan taught me the value and importance of land acquisition that yields direct opportunities to manage the habitat for conservation, which policies and laws can't ensure.
Thinking back over the past year, I can say we've made some definite progress. There is now an on-going collaboration of people , organizations and agencies that didn't exist a year ago. We've begun to compile and organize the studies, maps, and other data about Leona's Blue into a shared collection. We've begun to identify key research questions, and have some leads on funding. Its a start.
And clearly there is a lot more work to do. More people and organizations need to be involved, and many more need to be educated about Leona's Little Blue and her relationship to this landscape. We've made progress in educating some key people, organizations and agencies, but Leona's Blue is still a relative unknown in Oregon let alone elsewhere in the Northwest or the United States as a whole. We'll definitely be courting folks from Oregon Field Guide and other print and broadcast media to help us spread the word.
It's a long haul project for a long-term outcome with many variables, and many unknowns. For now we must keep talking, keep coordinating, keep organizing, keep learning and continue educating Oregonians and those around us in the Northwest about this tiny, indigenous, endemic jewel of a butterfly.
I hope you will find a way to join us in this effort, this reconnecting of people and land and plants and animals and insects. We need all the help we can get, and so do they.
List of species seen during our meeting and site visit (some scientific names may be out of date):