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Fragile Beauties: The World of Cascade-Siskiyou Butterflies

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Mardon Skipper
Credit: John Villella

Imagine what it is to sense the world around you as if you had the body of a butterfly. Sensing various degrees of light and color, UV rays and heat with your eyes, and your blood changing with the air temperature. When the sun has risen far enough in the sky to warm your muscles, you are then able to fly for the day. Following the wavering scent of nectar or pheromones in the wind, you paddle hard through the air, sometimes sidetracked by a breeze.

Butterflies are amazing creatures; some mimicking the looks of a birds’ face, others camouflaging with lichen and moss, some migrating between Oregon and Mexico in large groups. Of the group Lepidoptera, including moths and butterflies, was named so to reflect their “scaly wings.”

We are fortunate in Southern Oregon, to be graced by over 130 species of butterflies. Their great species diversity is owed to the overwhelming plant diversity, and thus also resulting from the habitat complexity of our landscape.

As delicate as they look, butterflies are also sensitive and needy creatures. Not only do butterflies depend on flower nectar to survive, they sometimes feed on berries and rotting fruit, carrion or meat or muddy patches for minerals at different times of year. They are extremely sensitive to temperature each day, and throughout the seasons. The plants that they depend on also vary throughout the year – certain plants on which to lay their eggs, or to go through metamorphosis from caterpillar (larvae) to butterfly (adult).

Local Lepidopterist Linda Kappen of the Applegate Valley has been studying butterflies of the region for over a decade. She has concerns for butterflies, and a couple species in particular, “I think that locally the main ones that feels threatened would be the Monarch and the Sierra blue. They are found in wet fragile meadows, their host plants are only found in these micro habitats.

Sierra Nevada Blue
Credit: John Villella

Some species of butterflies do not travel out of their specific area that is the only place they can thrive.”

Though rare butterflies like the Monarch are in decline, many hold hope and make efforts to restore their habitat. Kappan believes, “We must make every effort to protect these fragile ecosystems by changing grazing access or in some cases build wildlife friendly barriers for protection from trampling by livestock.”

In recent years, groups like the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates, the Farm at Southern Oregon University, and BeeGirl have cultivated small milkweed patches for butterflies called way stations. There are additional groups like Pollinator Project Rogue Valley, Beyond Toxics, and many others that are fighting to ban pesticides that kill beneficial and rare insects.


Want to take action to protect local butterfly habitat?

Contact the numerous pollinator groups and learn pollinators’ favorite plants for building your own pollinator garden in your yard or community.

Special opportunity: Join the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and KS Wild for a week long campout and stewardship project July 16-22. Participants must be proficient at backcountry camping and be able to lift heavy materials. Read more about the event at kswild.org


Check out the debut of “40 Butterflies of Southwest Oregon”

Hosted by the North West Nature Shop in Ashland on the June 2, First Friday Artwalk 5-8 pm.This meticulously detailed painting by Deb VanPoolen will soon available as posters.


Learn More:

Southern Oregon University has an incredible Digital Archive, open to the public, resource to help identify local Lepidoptera species. Check out the Insect Museum – Butterfly Collection online through the Hannon Library website.

Learn about local butterflies and moths through social media, follow the Southern Oregon Butterflies and Moths page.

Join the club! Get involved with butterfly conservation through the Southern Oregon Monarch Association (SOMA) on the web and Facebook.


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