Rare bee search is on at Deschutes meadow

Group opposed to wetlands plan hopes bee find could save Ryan Ranch

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

A small group hoping to stop the U.S. Forest Service from returning a meadow near Bend to wetlands is calling for help in searching for a rare species of bumblebee.

If the Western bumblebee is found at Ryan Ranch, a meadow just south of Dillon Falls along the Deschutes River, the Forest Service may have to change its plan, said Laurie Bynum, of Bend, one of the leaders of the Friends of the Meadow group. Although not listed for federal protection, the white-bottomed bumblebee is considered a sensitive species by the agency.

“Get out there with your cameras now,” she said Thursday.

For about a 100 years, a berm, or wall of earth, has kept water from sloshing onto the meadow from the Deschutes River. The agency plans to change this by putting notches into the berm to allow for seasonal flooding of the meadow by the river.

In planning the project, Forest Service officials evaluated the potential effect on the Western bumblebee and other animals, said Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District of the Deschutes National Forest.

They found the project could help the Oregon spotted frog, a candidate for federal Endangered Species Act protection, by creating more habitat for the amphibian.

Although bumblebees use the meadow and returning it to wetland would take habitat away from them, Larkin said, the project wouldn’t adversely impact the viability of the Western bumblebee as a species.

“It is not an area of ... huge concentrations of bumblebees,” he said.

The meadow, which he said currently has standing water on it caused by a high water table and runoff, doesn’t have many flowering plants to attract bumblebees.

Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society in Portland, also said there are not many flowers in the meadow. Rather, it is mainly reed canary grass. The Xerces Society is a nonprofit protecting wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Hatfield said he hasn’t formally studied the meadow, but the Western bumblebee might be found there.

“It is certainly within its range,” he said, “and it could be there.”

He encouraged people to go out to the meadow, look for the Western bumblebee and report their findings at bumble beewatch.org

“That’s the only way to determine if it is there,” Hatfield said, “to go out there and look for it.”

He said a Western bumblebee was found in 2011 in Sunriver, about 10 miles south of the meadow, and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist confirmed the find.

“That is within striking distance of the meadow,” said Cheryl Buck, another leader of the Friends of the Meadow. Buck lived in Bend before moving to Sedona, Ariz., in 2011 and remains involved in the debate about Ryan Ranch.

Planning for the project started in 2008 but stalled out in 2011 after irrigators raised concerns about how much water might be lost to seepage — into the porous ground and down into the aquifer — when the meadow is turned into a wetland. In January, the Forest Service released a revised plan, which calls for a pilot project to test the amount of seepage before permanently reconnecting the river to the meadow.

Forest Service officials are working on responses to at least five objections to the project, filed by people who had commented earlier. Larkin said they include objections from members of the Friends of the Meadow. The soonest any work could occur at the meadow would be this fall, and water wouldn’t be filling the meadow until next spring, he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

About the Western bumblebee

Scientific name: Bombus occidentalis

Characteristics: There are three color variations in the species, with the Western bumblebee found in Oregon having yellow near the front, a mainly black body and white near their stinger.

Food: Nectar from a variety of flowers.

History: Prior to 1998, the Western bumblebee was common and widespread around the Western United States. Since then, the species has had a dramatic decline in parts of its former range, including Oregon. Cause of the decline is unknown, but disease, habitat destruction and climate change could be contributors.

Source: The Xerces Society