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Corvallis Gazette Times 4/29/13

Plant ecologist Tom Kaye smiled wide last week as he motioned to a cluster of flowering golden paintbrush. He and his team planted them as seeds in 2010 at Finley National Wildlife Refuge.

“This plant helps pollinators,” he said.

As if on cue, two bumblebees appeared, each hovering over one of the endangered plants.

“There it is in action!” Kaye said, pointing to the bees, which were doing their part to ensure that golden paintbrush flourishes.

As director of the Institute for Applied Ecology, Kaye lives for this stuff.

The Corvallis nonprofit just wrapped up the massive planting phase of a project to re-establish at least five populations of 1,000 flowering plants in the Willamette Valley. To be sure to hit the goal, IAE planted golden paintbrush at three sites at Finley, one at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, one at Lupine Meadows near Philomath, one at Cardwell Hill area near Wren, one at Fitton Green and other sites near Eugene.

Two weeks ago, Monroe High School students helped plant about 600 of the 1,000 seedlings at the base of Pigeon Butte at Finley. Last week, an IAE team finished the last of the major planting at a Eugene area site.

Some naturally-grown batches of golden paintbrush can be found Washington and British Columbia, but the plant has been extinct in Oregon since 1938 when the last known specimen was collected near Peterson Butte outside Lebanon.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and a small foundation called Willamette Habitat Restoration, the project is part of a larger effort to re-establish the plant throughout its historic range: Willamette Valley, western Washington, San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island.

Golden paintbrush is related to the familiar red Indian paintbrush and looks similar only, well, golden.

“It was lost in the Willamette Valley probably due to habitat loss and fire suppression,” Kaye said.

Its habitat disappeared when land was converted to farms or roads, invasive weeds took over, and fire suppression allowed woods to encroach on prairies.

Because golden paintbrush is a parasite, it keeps the population of its host plants in check and that encourages biodiversity, which is healthy for any ecosystem, Kaye said. Sometimes certain plants — even some native species planted as part of a restoration project — can become too dominant, crowding others out.

“This plant is kind of like a vampire under the ground, but it doesn’t kill its hosts,” he said. “It just draws some nutrients and other sources like water from the plants.”

In addition, golden paintbrush is important food for pollinators, Kaye said, and it can host Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, a species that has been proposed for the endangered species list.

IAE has been working on recovery efforts for the plant since 2004, but it ramped up its efforts in 2010 when it secured grant funding.

When IAE botanists began the work, they first had to unlock the secrets of growing the plants in a greenhouse, and how and in what habitat to successfully transplant them.

“Then in 2010, we started larger scale productions to implement what we learned about the species, and in the process, we learned more,” Kaye said.

Because there is little historical literature about where the plant grew in Oregon, they experimented by spreading seeds and seedlings in a variety of places. Since 2010, they’ve planted 60 plots, which they continue to measure and monitor.

“This thing is back from the brink,” Kaye said. “… We’re really hopeful that this is going to be an endangered species success story.”

In the photo: BPP Grad Caitlin Lawrence plants, while IAE Biology Intern Isaac Sandlin brings the supplies