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A blossoming success: federal protections removed for a once-threatened NW prairie flower

 The golden paintbrush, a bright yellow flower found in Oregon and Washington, no longer needs federal protections.
Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The golden paintbrush, a bright yellow flower found in Oregon and Washington, no longer needs federal protections.

A once-rare flowering prairie plant has recovered enough in Washington and Oregon for federal officials to remove it from the Endangered Species List. The Northwest’s golden paintbrush blossoms in one of the most endangered ecosystems in the Northwest.

In 1997, you could only find golden paintbrush flowers in roughly 10 places around the Pacific Northwest. They’d been completely extirpated from Oregon. That’s when federal officials decided to designate the plant as threatened on the federal Endangered Species List.

Habitat loss, fire suppression, agricultural and urban development all threatened the flower.

Years of working to reintroduce golden paintbrushes and restore its habitat have brought the flower back from the brink. Now, bright yellow blossoms are now sprouting up in prairies from Puget Sound to the Willamette Valley.

“They call out to you. It's just a really beautiful sight,” said Erin Gray, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The prairies where these plants are found are some of the most rare ecosystems in the Northwest, she said. Roughly 10% remain in Washington and less than 1% remain in Oregon.

Indigenous people used wildfire to manage the prairies where golden paintbrushes thrive. Then, colonization brought development and agriculture, crowding out the open treeless areas.

“The prairies were expansive before European colonization. They really covered large swaths of the Puget Trough and the Willamette Valley,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Were it not for the Endangered Species Act, (the prairies) most likely would have been lost altogether.”

Now, the remaining remnant prairies are important ecosystems for the golden paintbrush and other threatened and endangered species.

”What is good for golden paintbrushes is good for native prairies, as well,” Gray said.

Land in south Thurston County that used to sprout Christmas trees is now the largest site for golden paintbrushes in the world. In the early 2000s, Cavness Ranch owners Otis and Arlene Cavness decided they wanted their ranch to return to native habitats, said Sanders Freed with the Center for Natural Lands Management.

“Out come the Christmas trees, and we’re like, ‘Well, this looks like a remnant prairie. We’ll try the seed mix and we’ll try golden paintbrush in there,’” Freed said.

Freed said they didn’t have any idea that they’d soon have a Northwestern super-bloom on their hands.

“It exploded. Now it’s the largest population of golden paintbrush in the world,” Freed said.

Several other species, including the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, rely on these prairies as well as the golden paintbrush, she said.

“The butterfly can lay its eggs on a golden paintbrush, and the larva can survive on that plant,” Gray said.

The success of the golden paintbrush comes on the golden anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act, which Greenwald said is more important now than it has been.

“With climate change, with our ever-growing footprint on the planet, scientists from around the world are warning that we’re in an extinction crisis,” Greenwald said. “In this country, the Endangered Species Act is our primary tool for saving species from extinction.”

Several other species have also recently been delisted in the Pacific Northwest, including the Oregon minnows Foskett speckled dace and Borax Lake chub, Bradshaw’s desert parsley, and the aquatic plant water howellia.

Gray said they’ll continue to monitor golden paintbrush populations over the next five years.
Copyright 2023 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.