Setting free the dunes will take a bit longer. But a U of G student’s discovery this past summer of a moth thought to have vanished has given heart to ecologists working to restore rare sand dune habitat on southwestern Vancouver Island. 

David Lawless, a fourth-year ecology student at Guelph, says spotting the elusive creature one night while scrambling among the dunes in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve was a highlight of his summer job.

It was also good news for Parks Canada, which has been working to restore the threatened Wickaninnish beach dunes under a five-year project begun in 2008. Finding the moth – known to live in only four places in Canada and about eight sites worldwide – shows that efforts to reclaim the original habitat are working, says Laura Judson, a communications officer with the agency’s coastal B.C. field unit.

“The sighting has been very exciting for ecosystem scientists and the 126 volunteers who have worked tirelessly to help the dune habitat recover,” says Judson, a 2006 English grad from U of G. “It has been an important sign that the fragile dune system has indeed been getting healthier.”

Since the 1950s, much of the coastal dunes have become carpeted by invasive beach grasses. Those grasses push out native animals and plants, including pink sand verbena and beach morning glory. The Wickaninnish dunes have decreased in area by almost one-third since 1970, as grasses and even forests now threaten to prevent normal sand dynamics.

“When the dunes are stable, it allows the forest to encroach,” explains Lawless. “There’s no dynamic sand movement, and that forest gets rid of rare plant species.”

The endangered sand-verbena moth relies on yellow sand verbena, a rare dune plant that has lost ground to those invaders. The adult insect drinks the plant nectar and lays eggs on the fragrant flowers; its larvae then eat the sticky leaves. Surveys by experts in 2001 and 2009 failed to turn up the moth.

This year, its host plant population has doubled in size where project volunteers have pulled out several football fields’ worth of American and European beach grass. That’s an encouraging sign only a few years into the project, says Lawless. 

His summer project involved helping to yank out beach grass, plant native species and monitor the area – not hunting an elusive nocturnal moth. But he and other volunteers spent several nights trekking in the dark with flashlights, headlamps and nets, hoping to spot their quarry with its brown and gold markings.

Success came after midnight one night in late June. Lawless took photos and video of the creature caught in a net and then released the insect. “We were all excited.”

He sent the shots to be identified by a local moth expert. A few days later, the answer came back in an email: yes, they’d snared the first sand-verbena moth in the area in more than 10 years.

“I was very humbled,” says Lawless. “It was a different experience. It’s rare that people can say they found an endangered species, and you start to think about the implications. It was overwhelming.”

He hopes the find – and the larger project results – will help secure more funding to keep the initiative going. It might be easy to overlook an obscure dune plant and its associated moth, but he says both are needed to preserve a rare habitat. “Species diversity is important for a lot of ecosystem services – clean water, clean air, everything is directly related. This moth is an essential part of an ecosystem that other species rely on, and we rely on those species.”

Spanning 125 kilometres of coastline between Tofino and Port Renfrew, the national park covers Long Beach – including Wickaninnish Bay – as well as the Broken Group Islands and the West Coast Trail, a 75-kilometre-long hiking route.

Originally from Owen Sound, Ont., Lawless has spent past summers working at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and at Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park in Ontario.

“I’ve always been passionate about environmental issues,” he says. “Guelph is well known for that and has a great reputation for the environment.”

Lawless left Vancouver Island in late summer for the Northwest Territories, where he spent two weeks with a friend rafting along the Nahanni River. The trip was their prize for winning a national parks video contest in 2010.