News

Hungry voles decimate golden paintbrush

The Navy will oversee a prescribed burn on Maylor’s Point designed to make life difficult for voles and improve the habitat for the golden paintbrush, a wildflower listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Oak Harbor and Coupeville residents could see smoke rising from Maylor’s Point as early as Monday if weather conditions permit on the little peninsula that separates Crescent Harbor from Oak Harbor Bay.

Voles are tiny mouse-like rodents that seem to find golden paintbrush particularly tasty.

“Voles are the main threat to the golden paintbrush,” said Peter Dunwiddie, a plant ecologist with the Nature Conservancy who will supervise the controlled burn.

Plans are to burn 10 acres of grass and brush in an area known as Forbes Point in a joint effort between the Navy’s Natural Resources Management program, the Nature Conservancy and the base’s Federal Fire Department.

The burn area is located near the Maylor Point housing area south of the garden plots and east of Baker Court out to the gravel road that runs along the bluff, as described in a news release from Kimberly Martin, base public affairs officer.

Dunwiddie said the vole population in the area is huge.

“The golden paintbrush is heavily browsed. We had over a thousand plants a few years ago, now there’s scarcely more than a hundred,” he said.

The voles are protected by a thick cover of heavy grass thatch on the property. That’s why mowing won’t suffice to make the area more open. Once the thatch is burned, the voles’ cover will be gone and predators will have a feast.

“That’s why we prefer burning to mowing,” Dunwiddie said.

Dunwiddie has worked for years to boost the golden paintbrush population on Whidbey Island. There are several populations of the plant on Central Whidbey of only about a dozen total.

“You have half the population of golden paintbrush left in the world,” he said.

A detailed burn plan is in effect, and fire breaks will be mowed where existing breaks, such as roads and the bluff, do not exist. Wind conditions must be suitable to carry the smoke away from the housing area and out toward Crescent Harbor.

Waiting for the correct conditions might take a few days, but the fire could be started as early as August 15.

Martin said local resource agencies and nearby residents will get additional notification on the day of the burn during set-up prior to fire initiation.

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