A plan to protect a rare butterfly on 7,831 acres of private property would seem ready-made for confrontation between government regulators and landowners.
But an experiment in collaboration is unfolding in Oregon's Yamhill County. The local Soil and Water Conservation District, doing ground-level work for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is asking landowners to voluntarily adopt a habitat conservation plan (http://yamhillswcd.org/hcp) for the endangered Fender's blue butterfly.
If they do, they'll be covered under the district's "incidental take" permit for the next 50 years. They'll be able to carry on normal operations -- including haying, grazing, vineyard management and timber harvest -- without fear of getting slammed by Endangered Species Act regulators if they incidentally kill or harm butterflies in the process.
The district will help landowners minimize or mitigate impact. For example, they might avoid cultivating a swath that contains the Kincaid's lupine the butterflies prefer, or plant some of the lupine elsewhere. Complicating the picture, Kincaid's lupine itself is listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
A draft habitat conservation plan covers private property on 506 tax lots within 1.2 miles of known butterfly habitat. Amie Loop-Frison, project manager for the Yamhill SWCD, said the plan is expected to be approved by the end of the year.
Loop-Frison said 90 percent of the butterfly's known habitat is on private property.
"It makes recovery trickier," she said. "You can't just alter habitat to focus on the butterfly; there has to be a compromise."
The district offers free surveys to determine if property owners have butterfly habitat on their land and stressing the voluntary nature of the program. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is paying for the plan development and has final approval, but Yamhill SWCD is doing the outreach to landowners.
"It made sense for us to work with them rather than someone from the federal government, housed up in Portland," Loop-Frison said.
"We made it clear the district does not want to become the (ESA) regulators in the county," Loop-Frison said. "We don't have a flashing light we can put on top of our vehicles.
"We do say it (ESA) is the law, and it applies to everyone, but we will not be actively patrolling for that," she said.
Environmental groups and activists might be another story, however. The Xerces Society and the Center for Biological Diversity successfully sued Yamhill County in 2010 over its road maintenance practices, saying spraying and grading was killing Fender's blues and their preferred habitat. The county was forced to write a habitat conservation plan of its own, which was approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife this past March.
The worry of getting tangled up in a similar lawsuit is among the factors influencing Jim and Sandy LeTourneux. They own 460 acres outside of Sheridan, most of it in timber. They have 35 acres in hay, plus a grassy area that resembles the native upland prairie and contains scattered patches Kincaid's lupine. From what they can tell, adoption of the Habitat Conservation Plan won't change their operations.
"If I made a living raising grain or wheat, I'd be concerned about it, I would," Jim LeTourneux said. "I'm kind of an advocate for it, but I'm only looking at how it would impact me.
"I guess the alternative would be really scary for me," he said. "The threats of lawsuits would scare the bejabbers out of me. You have to weigh all your alternatives and do what's best for the impact on your business, one way or the other.
"It's a voluntary, your-choice type of thing," he said. "You're free to say yes or no."
Fender's blue butterfly was assumed to have gone extinct in 1937 but was rediscovered in Western Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1989. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has confirmed it occupies 32 sites in Yamhill, Polk, Benton, and Lane Counties. Almost every site is within 21 miles of the Willamette River.
The largest known populations are at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge and at Willow Creek Main Preserve, managed by The Nature Conservancy.