Researchers test restoration techniques on Central Whidbey grasslands

Patches of prairie on Central Whidbey last week were once again ablaze with the fires of science.

For the third year in a row, researchers and land managers with various organizations from around the state conducted controlled burns of grasslands at Ebey’s Bluff and the Pacific Rim Institute of Environmental Stewardship.

The specific goals and objectives of each group vary, but all are essentially looking at how the regular use of fire can affect prairie ecosystems and its applications for land management.

“We’re definitely finding that fire is an important and effective tool,” said Eric Delvin, a community conservation coordinator with The Nature Conservancy and a graduate student at the University of Washington.

Delvin is working on his doctorate in ecology and has been studying techniques to rapidly restore prairies to their native state. His project, which spanned three calendar years, was funded by about $220,000 in grants from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The hope is that his research will pave the way for the reintroduction of five species of butterflies. They include Taylor’s checkerspot, the island marble, the Mardon skipper, the Puget blue and the valley silverspot.

Once common in areas around Puget Sound, they thrived on species of vegetation such as camas lily and golden paintbrush. Golden paintbrush is a federally listed species and, of just 12 remaining wild populations in the world, three are located on Whidbey Island, according to Devlin.

“Right now we have the largest population in existence,” agreed Robert Pelant, director of the Pacific Rim Institute of Environmental Stewardship.

Native prairie species have largely been replaced by European grasses introduced by farmers over the past 150 years. Pelant classifies all the areas involved in the study as “severely degraded.”

Along with fire, Delvin has studied two other techniques for restoring prairie habitat. Solarization, the practice of using sheets of plastic to foster growth, has been tried as has simply seeding an area to see if the native species dominate by themselves.

This year marked the end of Delvin’s research and the results were not what he expected. With a personal background in agriculture, he suspected that solarization would be the most effective, but it was fire that proved the most successful.

Golden paintbrush appeared to flourish in areas that were burned, or particularly, were heavily subjected to smoke, he said. Other native species also appear to favor the burned areas, he said.

“They are really adapted to fire ecosystems,” Delvin said.

It’s believed that Whidbey’s prairies were created by glaciation but maintained over the millennia by Native Americans, who used fire for both agricultural purposes and hunting.

If it weren’t for those practices, along with fires started from natural lightning strikes, many of the  prairies would have long ago been reclaimed by Whidbey’s forests or dominated by shrubs, Pelant said.

A team from the Center for Natural Lands Management, a non-profit group that has taken over The Nature Conservancy’s South Sound Program for prairie conservation, was also present.

While they are studying fire as a land management tool in areas around Puget Sound, they were in Central Whidbey largely to plan and conduct the burn safely, according to Mason McKinley, ecological fire manager for the group.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials attended as well. Delvin said the agency is looking at using fire as a land management tool on Protection Island, a national wildlife refuge in Discovery Bay.

Although Delvin’s work is now complete, the burns are expected to continue next year. Pelant said the institute will certainly continue burning to restore native prairie habitat and may also experiment with limited and controlled grazing by livestock such as goats.






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