A man smiling for the camera in front of rolling hills covered in yellow flowers with a distant pond.

Worthy of a toast

Farmers, vineyard and wildlife refuge work together for conservation

By Brent Lawrence | April 12, 2018

Salem, Oregon

If you take a drive through Oregon’s Willamette Valley, you’ll notice lush green rolling hillsides and stands of majestic white oaks, with small towns, farms and vineyards sprinkled throughout. Just west of Salem, you’ll find Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,492-acre slice of heaven.

It’s proof that farmers, landowners and imperiled native wildlife can thrive, side by side. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has helped make this happen.

A valley with a blue lake
Willamette valley. Photo by Brent Lawrence, USFWS.

This valley is home to a winery whose owners have set aside land for a species of threatened butterfly. The winery adjoins the National Wildlife Refuge, which has a farming cooperative that embraces conservation-friendly agricultural practices. Growers regularly plant grains for migrating geese, sharing their bounty with winged passersby.

An aerial photograph of a vinyard.
Aerial photograph of Van Duzer Vinyards.

And, everywhere, said Graham Evans-Peters, are reminders that business and conservation don’t have to be at odds. Evans-Peters is the manager of Baskett Slough, part of the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. He recently conducted a quick tour of the places where commerce and conservation intersect without conflict.

One stop: Van Duzer Vineyards. It’s a refuge for the endangered Fender’s blue butterflies.

An iridescent blue, purple and grey butterfly perched on a stick.
Fender's blue butterfly. Photo by USFWS.

Vineyard manager Bruce Sonnen is a fan of the tiny flutterers. His first job is to grow 84 acres worth of grapes for the Van Duzer wines. But it’s what the vineyard does on the other 22 acres that makes the winery extra special.

Working with the Service, Van Duzer has created a haven for the butterflies as well as Kincaid’s lupine, acorn woodpeckers, Oregon white oaks and other native species. Kincaid’s lupine is the blue butterfly’s host plant.

“It only makes sense to do this on our unused space,” Sonnen said. “We can’t use these areas for grape production due to the soil and topography in those areas. Why wouldn’t we work to help native wildlife?”
An employee points over the valley
Willamette valley prairie. Photo by Brent Lawrence, USFWS.

The Service started working with Van Duzer about eight years ago. As with most conservation projects, the initial results are slow. Then one day in 2014, came a welcome discovery.

“The day we found our first Fender’s blue butterfly was amazing,” Sonnen recalled. “The main thing I remember is seeing four grown men with butterfly nets jumping about in the field, excited because we had finally found a little blue butterfly. It was a sight to see.”

Since that discovery, four years ago, the butterfly population has increased 400 percent annually, Sonnen said. “It’s proof that if you build it, they will come.”

The vineyard is but one of nature’s good neighbors.

Evans-Peters, standing on the south slope of Baskett Butte, gestured to a stand of trees — white oaks, growing on a remnant of prairie that’s never been plowed. Farther down the hill was a former agriculture field that was restored to native prairie in 2014.

Dormant trees showing signs of new leaves.
White oak. Photo by Brent Lawrence, USFWS.
“Native prairie is a really imperiled habitat in the Willamette Valley at less than 1 percent of its historic range,” he said. “That field mainly has been planted with a couple of native bunch grasses and dozens of native wildflowers, which is great for a whole host of wildlife species around here.”

Down the slope is a collaborative farming operation. The Service has an agreement with the growers to plant grass or grain for winter forage for the dusky Canada goose and other waterfowl. “The farmers don’t pay a rent or any fees to use the acreage,” he said. “They create unlimited browse for the waterfowl that overwinter here, and then the farmers harvest the rest in the spring.

A man crouching on a hillside.
Photo by Brent Lawrence, USFWS.

Evans-Peters walked on, coming to a stop under a huge Oregon white oak, an imperiled species. It’s growing on a tract where some intense habitat management is going on. Oak savannas and prairies once covered about 1.8 million acres, or about half of the Willamette Valley. Today, only about 47,000 acres remain.

One reason: People suppressed fire as the valley became ever more settled. That allowed other species to grow and compete with the oak. The refuge is thinning one of those invasive trees, the Douglas fir. In addition, crews routinely thin undergrowth to maintain an open grassland. This benefits a multitude of native species while encouraging the young oaks to grow into mighty oaks.

“These majestic white oaks are important to the ecosystem here,” Graham says. “They help provide food for many species of wildlife, increase native insect populations which are an important food source, and they offer nest, den and roosting sites for wildlife.”

Restored prairie, blue butterflies, waterfowl forage — and wine. All in one valley.

And that’s something to which we can all raise a toast.

Two proprietors pouring wine.
Photo by Brent Lawrence, USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through our National Wildlife Refuge System, a network of lands benefiting wildlife and providing unparalleled outdoor experiences for all Americans, and our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a voluntary initiative that works with private landowners to improve fish and wildlife habitat on their land. A phone call or email is all it takes to learn more with one of our 250 private lands biologists. If you are interested in improving habitat for fish and wildlife on your land, find your local Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Brent Lawrence is a public affairs specialist out of the Pacific Region in Portland, Oregon.