William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge on a Mission

geeseThe Willamette Valley is home to a vast range of native species, some of which are imperiled due to loss of habitat, discontinuation of disturbance regimes such as prescribed fires, and encroaching nonnative or invasive species. But, there are things being done.

Located in Corvallis, the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge is a part of the so-called Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes two other refuges, Ankeny and Baskett Slough.

One of our region’s last-standing sanctuaries to native animal and plant life, the William L. Finley Refuge offers prairie lands, wetlands, woodlands, and riparian habitats. Established in 1964, the intention was to provide winter resting grounds for dusky Canada geese.

Feeding crops for geese are grown and tended to on-site by local farmers through cooperative farming programs. Such grazing zones are closed to the public during winter months to ensure the geese aren’t “energetically hazed,” in the words of Refuge Wildlife Biologist Brian Root.

Though the dusky Canada geese aren’t listed as threatened or endangered, they are scarce in numbers. Causal factors include the 1964 Alaskan earthquake which elevated their nesting grounds by six feet, and rapid implementation of agriculture and industry on native lands since European settlement.

Under one percent of the Willamette Valley’s wet prairies exist today, and less than eight percent of oak savanna and woodlands. One factor Root considers key in protecting these habitats are aforementioned disturbance regimes. Refuge workers continually pull, plow, flood, spray herbicides, and prescribe fires to refuge lands. Prescribed fires are essential in decreasing the likelihood of detrimental wildfire and burning away nonnative overgrowth which shades and kills native species—local flowering plants such as threatened golden paintbrush and endangered Bradshaw’s lomatium and Willamette daisy.

Threatened Nelson’s checkermallow can also be found on our region’s prairie lands. The flower attracts pollinators such as bumblebees and provides sustenance to rare native weevil species, hosts of parasitic wasps which are also rare. Pollinators, such as the endangered and once believed extinct Fender’s blue butterfly, are bio controllers of weeds and indicators of environmental pollutants, thus considered keystone species. Fender’s blue butterfly is dependent on a threatened host plant, Kincaid’s lupine, especially vulnerable to encroachment due to its low-growing nature.

The dramatic recovery of the Oregon chub, native exclusively to the Willamette Valley and the first fish ever federally delisted, is considered a big victory for Root and the many agencies, partner organizations, and private landowners that aided in its recovery. The Oregon chub is prey to bigger species such as the great blue heron, and there are 80 known populations thriving today.

Also recently delisted from the state Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection, though not inhabiting refuge prairie lands and valleys, were gray wolves, also considered a keystone species, for controlling large game populations which feed on streamside vegetation. There are 16 known gray wolf packs estimated to roam Oregon today.

Last on the refuge’s list of at-risk species is the threatened streaked horned lark, small ground-dwelling birds which prefer open landscapes, one reason they are often attracted to military bases and airports (giving streaked a whole other image). The larks feed on seeds and insects and an estimated 500 individual birds are thought to dwell in Oregon.

“We’ve got enough of a foothold on a lot of these species that we’ve taken them out of imminent danger,” said Root.

Root and other refuge employees are teaming up with local participants to meet recovery goals set by their regional office. Still in early stages of restoration, the refuge is collaborating to recover, sustain, and diversify the habitats and populations of prairie lands and beyond, alongside active managing and maintaining the current quality of habitats.

At large, all parties are concerned with keeping invasive species at bay, and oddly enough, the change in climate might undermine encroaching nonnative vegetation, such as heat-intolerant Douglas firs, which overcrowd and kill off oak savannas, our region’s breeding and resting grounds for over 100 migratory birds and countless plant life. The preservation of plant life is most crucial medicinally, as their chemical compositions and genetic material have beget many breakthrough discoveries.

One last fun fact, bestowed by Visitor Service Manager Samantha Bartling: All that stringy, mystical green that grows bright on the oaks—studies show that those lichen and usnea are bioindicators of superb air quality. So carry on breathing easy, Oregonians, while also appreciating these imperiled species and their refuge protectors.

By Stevie Beisswanger