Lost and Found

Rediscovering the Palos Verdes Blue Butterfly

The Palos Verdes Peninsula is just a pinpoint on the Earth’s surface, but it is the only place where a brilliant blue butterfly—about the size of a quarter—is found. The Palos Verdes blue butterfly was described as a distinct subspecies in 1977, and by the mid-‘80s it was thought to be extinct.

In 1985 Rudi Mattoni, PhD—a UCLA professor who worked extensively with the species—told the Los Angeles Times when asked if there were any left, “It’s over.” The butterfly’s last-known haunt, Fred Hesse Community Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, was scraped bare in 1983 to make way for a baseball diamond.

“If there had been anything, we would have found it,” Rudi told the Times.

Adrienne Mohan, conservation director of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, wonders if people even knew what they had back then. “I don’t think there was quite the education that there is today among schools and among the cities about the butterfly itself,” she says.

In 1994 Rudi and some colleagues were at the U.S. Navy’s Defense Fuel Support Point (DFSP) in San Pedro, on the east side of the Peninsula, when they finally spotted the elusive insects. “It didn’t register at first,” Rudi told a reporter for The New York Times in 1994. “The sun broke through, and there they were.”

On the “Fly”

In 2007 Jana Johnson, PhD, established The Blue Butterfly Project—a second captive-rearing program for the PV blue—at Moorpark College, where she is a biology professor. Since 1994 the number of captive PV blues has mushroomed from 200 to 4,000 and possibly as high as 10,000; however, the insects have struggled to re-establish themselves in nature.

Adrienne blames the drought. “It has been a challenge for host plants on the landscape to be ready, flowering and in the perfect state to have butterflies come out and be able to occupy them,” she says. The butterflies only live for five days, during which they breed and lay eggs on the host plants—which the caterpillars eat when they hatch.

Fixer-Uppers

Jana raises the butterflies and brings pupae in “caterpillar condos”—clear plastic cups with netting over the tops—to the Conservancy’s native plant nursery at the DFSP. When the adult butterflies emerge, they are released on habitat replanted with locoweed and deer weed at the DFSP, the Chandler Preserve in Rolling Hills Estates or Friendship Park in San Pedro.

“The Conservancy appreciates the contributions and expertise of all the recovery program partners working to increase the populations of the butterfly,” says Louise Olfarnes, Conservancy communications manager. “The land and the habitat provided by the Conservancy are an integral part of this project.”

The Conservancy uses volunteers through its Adopt-a-Plot program to weed non-native plants and replant host plants to ready sections for butterfly releases, which Adrienne says require “a little higher level commitment than coming out for a Saturday volunteer day.”
It takes a year of weeding and replanting a plot before PV blues can be released there. The Chandler Preserve is one of the best PV blue habitat areas on the Peninsula, says Adrienne, and it has been worked “intensively since 2012.”

The PVPLC also supports butterfly restoration and other projects around the Peninsula by growing some 50,000 native plants annually. “We provide the host plants—deer weed and locoweed—to Jana Johnson for the rearing program,” Adrienne explains, “—around 2,000 plants a year. That’s what it takes to provide their captive caterpillar stock with enough food to eat. They mow through all of that.”

Good Neighbor

Rancho Palos Verdes’ own Terranea Resort, is a big supporter of PV blue butterfly restoration and the PVPLC. Although the 102-acre resort doesn’t have any PV blues that anyone knows of, the resort harbors another threatened butterfly species: the El Segundo blue butterfly. Even so, it may just be a matter of time, as the PVPLC is restoring PV blue habitat at the Alta Vicente Reserve—across the street from Terranea.

Terranea hosts the PV Pastoral—a $250-a-plate, garden-to-table gourmet dining event and the PVPLC’s biggest single fundraiser—on October 15 this year. In addition, the resort reached out to them for Earth Day. “We’re incredibly grateful to them for their support,” Louise says.

In recognition of Earth Day, Conservancy personnel will be setting up an outreach exhibit for Terranea guests, organizing a native plant station and guiding a nature hike. To boot, the resort purchased 30,000 native plants from the PVPLC and replanted them on its coastal bluff property.
“It is wonderful how conservation-minded they are in utilizing native plants for their landscaping,” Adrienne says.

Second Chances

Adrienne believes that the “level of awareness” is much greater now than before when the PV blue went AWOL, and the Conservancy’s education programs are a big reason why. Louise agrees: “We are trying to initiate connection, education and appreciation of the PV blue butterfly.”

The Conservancy offers every third-grader enrolled in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District a Third-Grade Nature Program, which includes a lesson on the PV blue butterfly. They also partner with organizations like the Palos Verdes Art Center, which has an Art at Your Fingertips program for local students who chose the butterfly and host plants as muses for a project.

Unlike the last time, when the iconic insect faded into oblivion without so much as a collective hiccup except among a few conservationists, people are much more apt to know about the PV blue and why it should be preserved because of the education partnerships forged by the PVPLC.

“I think it is inspiring to hear about an endangered species coming back to an area where it hasn’t been in years,” says Lauren Bergloff, sustainability leader and naturalist at Terranea Resort. Lauren looks to the brown pelicans she sees every day as she leads nature walks around Terranea as a source of inspiration. They were once on the Endangered Species List due to DDT but later removed as they recovered.

“We see pelicans every single day here at Terranea,” she remarks. “I hope other endangered species in the area will someday be removed from the Endangered Species List as well.”

The Palos Verdes blue butterfly, perhaps?
The Palos Verdes Blue Butterfly Project partners are America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College, The Urban Wildlands Group, U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy.

Written by Clay Jackson