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Originally published November 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 27, 2007 at 3:32 PM

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Volunteers help bring Puget Sound's coastal prairies back to life

Like parents fussing over their children on the first day of school, volunteers recently planted the rare golden paintbrush seedlings on...

Skagit Valley Herald

Information

North Puget Sound Prairie Working Group : www.northsoundprairies.org/

Whidbey Camano Land Trust : www.wclt.org/projects/naaspreserve/

South Puget Sound Prairie Working Group : www.southsoundprairies.org/

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OAK HARBOR, Wash. — Like parents fussing over their children on the first day of school, volunteers recently planted the rare golden paintbrush seedlings on Whidbey Island in hopes that their efforts will help restore the coastal prairies of Puget Sound.

Golden paintbrush once ranged from Willamette Valley in Oregon to Vancouver Island in B.C., but now it only grows in 11 places and has been considered in danger of extinction for 10 years. Forbes Point, where the volunteers gathered, had Whidbey Island's largest population of golden paintbrush.

On a bluff above the surging sea, nine people, many volunteers with The Nature Conservancy, unloaded several flats, each filled with almost 100 paintbrush seedlings. Volunteers took on various tasks — punching holes in the thick grass and soil, laying out the seedlings and planting the tiny paintbrush starts, carefully pressing the rich loam around their roots.

If the seedlings survive, and research indicates many will, the 1- and 2-inch-tall starts will reach 12 inches. This coming spring and summer, brilliant golden leaves will emerge. Last week, volunteers braved cold wind and a little rain to give the little Castilleja levisectas, its Latin name, a new home at two sites on Whidbey Island.

"It's just something that needs to be done, a little something that needs to be given back," said Al Frasch, a retired high school math teacher who lives in Freeland resident and Conservancy volunteer.

The volunteers worked first at Forbes Point, and they then went to Smith Prairie in Ebey's Landing Historical Reserve, near Coupeville. Smith's Prairie is managed by the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, a Michigan-based Christian environmental group. The volunteers worked with biologists from the U.S. Navy and the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as two Conservancy employees.

The planting was part of an effort which includes six state and federal agencies, the Canadian government and at least five private, nonprofit conservation groups aimed at restoring the prairies in the Northwest and with them the threatened golden paintbrush.

Private groups, such as the conservancy, Au Sable and Whidbey Camano Land Trust, have either purchased acres of grassland or obtained conservation easements to prevent development of sections of the island's coastal prairie. The conservation groups also work with the various agencies, including the Navy, to organize volunteer work parties.

For the Navy, monitoring the golden paintbrush within the Whidbey station's boundaries is part of the military's effort to ensure the agency complies with the Endangered Species Act. Civilian biologists regularly monitor species, such as the paintbrush, salmon, bald eagles and great blue herons.

For winter, the brilliant golden leaves that give the plant its name are gone. Only dry, brown seed pods and stems extending above delicate green shoots mark where the vivid plants bloomed this past summer.

While its reddish-orange cousins thrive all over the West, the golden paintbrush is on the verge of extinction, according to groups that seek to preserve the coastal grasslands of Whidbey. The golden paintbrush was first described in 1898 and was found in at least 30 sites in the Northwest's coastal prairies.

The paintbrush benefited from the Northwest's indigenous peoples' practice of burning the grasslands to keep cedar and other species from crowding out camas and other plants they needed for food, said Peter Dunwiddie, a botanist and director of stewardship for the conservancy's Washington chapter.

But when settlers of European descent arrived in the Northwest, the prairies were easier than the forests to clear for farming, Dunwiddie said. The loss of habitat is the most-accepted theory as to why the golden paintbrush numbers are low. Now browsing animals such as deer and rabbits are one threat to the plant's recovery, as is development, he said.

Today, the golden paintbrush survives in only 11 places, including five sites on Whidbey and two in the San Juan Islands.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 plants are flowering at the remaining sites, Dunwiddie said.

Forbes Point at the naval station had the largest concentration of golden paintbrush on Whidbey Island in 1997, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials listed the golden paintbrush as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, according to the federal government.

For Fish and Wildlife to remove the golden paintbrush from the threatened species list, at least 1,000 plants must flower for at least five years in 20 sites, according to the federal recovery plan. The plant is also protected in Canada, where it is found in only two spots on Vancouver Island.

"This population has fluctuated quite a bit," said Judy Lantor, a Fish and Wildlife biologist.

There are signs that the volunteers' hard work planting seedlings is starting to pay off for the golden paintbrush.

At the land trust's Nass Natural Area Preserve in the Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, the number of flowering golden paintbrush has grown from 59 to several hundred over the past three years, Dunwiddie said.

Restoring the prairies often involves pulling up Scotch broom and cutting down young shrubs and trees. It also helps protect the habitat needed by camas and chocolate lilies that bloom in Whidbey's coastal grasslands along with the golden paintbrush.

"If we can save these prairies, we can save other species that are delicate and rare, but are not listed (as endangered)," Dunwiddie said.

The quarter-acre stretch of land where the volunteers worked last week between the steep bluff overlooking Forbes Point and the nearby Navy housing bears only a slight resemblance to the prairie that might have been before settlers came to Whidbey.

Nonnative species have replaced the native grasses, Lantor said.

Noxious weeds such as blackberry brambles and thistles have attempted to encroach on the section of protected land. It's fenced to protect the rare plants from trampling by passers-by and nibbling deer and rabbits.

The volunteers are no fair weather gardeners. Marion Jarisch, who with her husband, Mike Jarisch, volunteers each week in the prairies of the South Sound, passed out hand warmers. Most everyone was decked out in fleece and warm boots. A few volunteers wore warm, waterproof pants and jackets like those worn by sailors and fishermen. Working quickly, they planted about 800 seedlings in rows.

"It's mostly fun," said David Hepp, a Lake Forest Park resident and retired landscape architect. A regular volunteer, he said that work on the grasslands gives him a change of pace and view. "It's different habitat. I live in the deep woods in north Seattle. These are different plants, different birds."

Waiting for warmer weather isn't an option. Research indicates that the paintbrush need about six weeks of cold weather to germinate, according to the St. Louis, Mo.-based Center for Plant Conservation.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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