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Conserving native butterfly species in a Washington agroecosystem

  • Samantha Bussan and Cheryl Schultz, Washington State University Vancouver

  • 2018

Worldwide, many butterfly species are at risk due to the loss of native grasslands. In North America, agricultural intensification, fire suppression, urbanization, and biological invasions threaten grassland butterfly habitat. Since much of the area that was formerly grassland has been converted to agriculture, it is critical to understand how to support native butterflies in an agroecosystem while still supporting the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers. Livestock grazing may influence the ecosystem in a variety of ways, and while some of these grazing effects can have negative impacts on the ecosystem and the resident butterfly species, many studies show positive effects of some grazing practices. Grazing can help control exotic grass species, maintain lower vegetation heights, and increase the proportion of forbs, which benefits butterflies. Many rural areas have high levels of tension between landowners and conservation agencies due to the conflicting needs of agriculture and conservation. Therefore, it is essential to understand how to engage livestock producers in implementing conservation-oriented grazing practices on their land. Western Washington prairies make an ideal location to study both the biological and sociological aspects of this issue. With less than three percent of the original extent of Western Washington prairies remaining, improving sustainable agriculture in this agroecosystem is critical to preventing butterfly species extirpation or extinction.

This project is part of a broader research effort that seeks to test ecological and sociological hypotheses to form the foundation for butterfly conservation success in agroecosystems. Researchers will determine how grazing management strategy affects butterfly use of habitat and habitat quality, and how to develop conservation incentives that engage landowners in the adoption of conservation-oriented grazing practices to benefit native butterfly species. Standard methods in behavioral ecology will be used to understand butterfly use and perception of the agricultural landscape, including the mapping of butterfly flight paths and habitat features important to butterflies such as host plants and nectar flowers. Meanwhile, social science surveys will consist of open and closed-ended questions to be distributed to approximately 50 grazing operations within the south Puget sound region.

This research will inform and complement current and future research and outreach conducted by WSU Extension and Center for Natural Lands Management. Behavioral studies of butterflies in association with the plant community will provide foundational information for land management planning in the region. Social science surveys provide a direct mechanism to inform on-the-ground education and outreach to develop grazing strategies and policies that benefit butterflies. By combining research in both the biological and social fields, we can improve native butterfly conservation on working lands in Washington. ($19,600)