Butterfly conservation takes flight in Oregon prison

Text by Ronda Naseth, Oregon Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program Coordinator, Oregon Zoo
Photos by Tom Kaye, Institute for Applied Ecology, and Chad Naugle, Oregon Department of Corrections

The technicians pose with their larvae, growing in cups under energy-efficient LED bulbs. From left to right: Marisol, Carolyn, Mary, Sarah.

Sarah shows how larvae have begun webbing in preparation for diapause.

The excitement generated by the new Butterfly Conservation Lab at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility is both palpable and contagious to anyone who visits. The buzz began this spring. Oregon Zoo staff began training program technicians to receive egg clusters and to raise larvae. At the same time, staff and inmates – skilled in trades from plumbing to quilting – worked to transform an empty room into a fully functioning, bright, and beautiful lab. The work being done here is groundbreaking: it expands recovery efforts for the endangered Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly from Washington to Oregon, and brings butterfly conservation work into a medium facility housing unit for the first time.

The technicians’ dedication to the work is reflected in successes so far this season. Their attentiveness allowed them to capture video of the first larvae hatching from their eggs. They enthusiastically welcomed 150 “ninjas” that were overlooked as egg clusters but suddenly appeared as larvae on our host plants. Recently, they accepted the responsibility for care of a single Oregon Zoo butterfly which elected to skip diapause (a period of dormancy, somewhat similar to hibernation), and head straight into pupation and adulthood several months ahead of schedule.

Ultimately, the technicians’ care has resulted in a 95% survival rate, measuring from the time the larvae were first big enough to count to entering diapause. Our program goals include having 500 larvae survive diapause in order to be released to the field next spring; with 935 healthy larvae currently ready to head into the overwintering stage, we are optimistic we will meet this goal!

Marisol shows a lab visitor how larvae climb to the lids of their cups to bask in the light.

Staff and technicians alike are deservedly proud of their work and of the lab itself. They actively seek opportunities to share their space and their new knowledge. They host tours, speak about the program at Toastmasters gatherings, and participate in special activities such as CCCF’s annual Through A Child’s Eyes event and a recent science lecture and media visit. Technicians share larval development with other women on their unit by displaying photos and information on the lab windows. In the technicians’ words:

“When I go to our butterfly lab, I feel a sense of peace in a world of chaos. I have a rare opportunity to sustain the life of an endangered species, which gives me a unique reward of being able to give peace back into the world.”

Sarah

“This program gives me an opportunity to give back to the Earth and not take things for granted.”

Marisol

“The Butterfly Program has been very beneficial to me as I know I’m doing something good for the environment. I also love the opportunity to work with a wonderful team!

Mary

“To be involved in this program means I am given the opportunity to be involved in my community here at Coffee Creek as well as an extension to the outside community through our partnership with the Oregon Zoo, ultimately helping to change Oregon’s environment one butterfly at a time.”

Carolyn

The butterfly crew stands under a quilt created for the lab by Oregon Corrections Enterprises quilters. From left to right: Marisol, Ronda, Mary, Sarah, Carolyn.

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