Creating a wildlife sanctuary at home one step at a time

Posted 5/29/24

  Think twice before planting that exotic rhododendron if you value your wildlife.

 That's because native wildlife — from ladybugs up the food chain to bears — depends …

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Creating a wildlife sanctuary at home one step at a time


  Think twice before planting that exotic rhododendron if you value your wildlife.

 That's because native wildlife — from ladybugs up the food chain to bears — depends heavily on native plants.

 "Pick any native plant and you will find a pollinator that relies on it," Claire Kerwin of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) said in an interview.

 For instance, the Hoary Elfin, a stylish orange-brown butterfly with black-dotted wingtips, relies almost exclusively on the kinnikinnick (a dwarf shrub with glossy green leaves and bold red berries) during its caterpillar stage.

 You'll never find a Hoary Elfin laying eggs on a Pacific rhododendron, a rhody so ravishing it's our state flower, or an award-winning rose for that matter. The Hoary Elfin knows what it likes, and it doesn't like rhodies or roses.

 That's because native plants coevolve with native insects, and the Hoary Elfin hasn't coevolved with a rhody or a rose.

 Rather, it's been in a mutually beneficial relationship with the kinnikinnick for eons. The shrub supplies the Hoary Elfin with food and shelter, and the butterfly pollinates the plant.

 Pollination ensures that the kinnikinnick will produce viable seeds as well as red berries that feed songbirds, gamebirds, elk, black bears, foxes, coyotes, the Hoary Elfin, and many other organisms.

 Unfortunately, codependence is risky business. As Kerwin put it, "The decline in native plants and the decline in native insects go hand-in-hand." 

 Kerwin heads the DFW's excellent Habitat at Home program (Google "DFW Habitat at Home"), which encourages Washington residents to take four steps at home to help the state's native wildlife. Step No. 1 is going native, as in planting native plants.

 If you live in a shotgun shack and your only outdoor space is a tiny porch, consider putting a potted plant on it. Make sure to put a native plant in the pot so that native critters like the endangered Taylor's checkerspot butterfly can benefit from it.

  The other steps involve water, shelter, and space to raise young. To obtain an eye-catching sign from the DFW that shows your participation in the program, you need to take at least two of the four steps and complete the department's online application (see the Google instructions above).

 If you've only got a balcony and want to participate in the program, consider putting out a potted native plant and a container of water (consider a "bird bath deck mounted bowl" from Amazon). The beverage could quench the thirst of many winged creatures.

 If you've got more outdoor space, provide shelter — install a bat house, a bird house, a mason-bee house, and/or a rock pile. Many nurseries sell mason bees.

 Got a McMansion on 20 acres? Step 4 (create space to raise young) will be a piece of cake. Your goal is to provide space for nesting birds, denning mammals, egg-laying amphibians, so on and so forth — wildlife, to be concise.

Spaces to raise young include trees with cavities, dense shrubs, plants popular with caterpillars, a pond with sheltering plants, a meadow, and a wooded area. If you've already got a bat house, consider getting a second one; the same goes for bird and bee houses.

 Returning to Step No. 1 — planting native plants—think vertically as well as horizontally. Plant native ground cover, but also plant bushes that grow 2-4 feet and bushes that grow considerably taller; you'll help a great many species that way. Plant trees if you have the space.    

 I buy a lot of plants. Sometimes I see a foreign beauty and feel the urge go non-native. In those moments of weakness, I think of the Western bumblebee, which is native to Washington. If I'm being playful, I ask myself, what would a Western bumblebee do?

 He or she wouldn't buy a Cape Periwinkle from Madagascar any more than you'd order a pizza topped with snails.

 But wait, there's more: A non-native plant such as the Cape Periwinkle might adapt to its new environment readily, reproduce quickly, and produce seeds that can be easily dispersed by animals or the wind.  Eventually the non-native could push the native out of existence.

 "But I've only got one pot to plant in," you say. "What difference can one plant make?" Not much. But if a million Washington residents also only had one pot each and they put a native plant in it, the cumulative effect would be colossally positive.

 It could make the difference between the Island Marble, a butterfly only found in the San Juan Island National Historical Park, making a full population recovery instead of continuing its flight toward oblivion.

 Speaking of native wildlife, Kerwin said: "We're just pushing them out of cities and out of the suburban areas. Creating these healthy spaces for wildlife, however small you start, is going to have a huge impact, especially if you get your neighbors to do this too." 

 Which is where the attention-grabbing Habitat at Home sign comes in. Put one in your front yard and people will screech to a stop. They'll demand to know what it's about and how they can get a sign like yours.

  Scott Doggett is a former staff writer for the Outdoors section of the Los Angeles Times. He and his wife, Susan, live in Port Townsend.