“Oregon Department of Transportation” (ODOT) likely conjures up images of workers in fluorescent vests and hard hats standing amid orange cones, ushering you through highway construction projects. What you don’t associate with ODOT is acres of pristine, intact wetland habitat, giving homes to millions of flowers and thousands of bees. However, this is exactly what ODOT is stewarding near the base of the Table Rocks in Central Point, Oregon. If you live in Southern Oregon, your own backyard is home to one of the most creative and progressive restoration projects in the nation.
ODOT manages 196 acres of vernal pool habitat (seasonal wetlands) for the purposes of habitat restoration and species mitigation. Vernal pools are locally significant because they support three state and federally protected plant and macro-invertebrate species: vernal pool fairy shrimp, Cook’s desert parsley and large-flowered wooly meadowfoam.
The fairy shrimp are almost invisible to the naked eye, but on a sunny day they cast tiny shadows on the bottom of the pool. The desert parsley is a striking, sensitive yellow flower. The meadowfoam smells like marshmallows and grows close to the ground, filling in empty space the drying pools leave behind in spring.
ODOT began restoration of the pools in 2011. Completed in 2019, approximately 190 acres have been restored. Starting in 2016 ODOT partnered with the Bee Girl organization (BGO) to monitor bees at the site as an indicator for restoration success.
You may still be asking yourself, “What do hardhats and bees have in common?”
Every time a sensitive wetland area is removed to build a road, straighten a curve, etc., it must be replaced or “mitigated.” This is Oregon state law. Restoring an acre here and there wasn’t doing much good, as invasive grasses can re-envelop a small project site in no time. In order to address this, ODOT purchased a 200-acre ranch to work on as a “conservation bank.” For example, if five acres are filled in to add a passing lane to a highway, then five acres are dug out to recreate wetlands at the vernal pool site. With a mitigation bank, the wetland is restored up front and ODOT earns credits which it uses to replace wetlands that will be filled by future projects. Like a monetary bank account, the wetland account has a credit balance. When all the credits are used, the site will be donated to a land management organization to manage in perpetuity (conservation speak for forever).
Our bees are in trouble and many pollinators are in decline due to habitat loss, disease, climate change, and pesticide use. Restoring habitat is vital to conservation. Pollinators need refuges filled with pesticide-free, diverse flowers. Approximately 86% of plants need pollinators, so winged wonders like bees and butterflies are responsible for pollinating the berries and fruits in our wildlands that feed birds, bears, and everything in between.
Environmental stewardship and sustainability are two of ODOT’s core values, with pollinator habitats being a priority. BGO focuses primarily on education and pollinator habitat conservation. BGO began collaborating with ODOT in 2016 to monitor bee abundance and diversity, observe which flowers are most attractive to bees, and observe dynamics between honey bees, solitary bees, and bumble bees.
Annually tracking this data provides information to ODOT project managers on the restoration’s success. If diversity and abundance of pollinators continually increases on the restored vernal pool site, compared to the “control” sites, the project is successful. The species data being collected is highly valuable to the bee conservation community, as little is known of pollinators in vernal pool systems. BGO also provides data-based planting recommendations to maximize pollinator habitat and health in future vernal pool restorations, and similar projects.
For example, after our discovery of how important large flowered blue-eyed Mary, Collinsia grandiflora, was to newly emerged queen bumble bees, ODOT adjusted their management schedule to allow the flower to finish blooming before mowing.
Another highlight has been education on the importance of bees and wetlands. One of BGO’s primary focuses is youth education through our “Kids and Bees” project, so collaborating on a program for ODOT’s “Take Your Kid to Work Day” was a must. Paul Benton, ODOT Wetland Specialist, has organized a vernal pool exploration program for ODOT workers and their kids for the last three years. The kids usually arrive uneasy around the bee covered landscape, but within minutes they become passionate tiny entomologists. In 2019 one particularly excited kiddo caught the project’s first Bombus griseocollis, Brown-belted Bumble Bee.
Our vernal pools are wondrous, essential habitats in the Pacific Northwest. They provide space for flowers, homes for wildlife, healthy food for pollinators, and perhaps even inspiration for the next generation of biologists.