Nature’s Last Stand
The El Segundo Blue Butterfly and other species once on the brink of extinction make fragile comebacks in the shadows of a metropolis
By Gary Walker
Once on the brink of extinction, the tiny El Segundo Blue Butterfly is making a comeback in Playa del Rey.
In 2010, significant numbers of the federally designated endangered species lived in only two places — the LAX-adjacent sand dune preserve along Vista del Mar and a smaller preserve within the footprint of Chevron’s oil refinery complex in El Segundo.
Then the unexpected happened. No one’s exactly sure how, but a handful of El Segundo Blues made their way to a sand dune habitat at the southwestern end of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve and started mating. In 2013 and 2014, biologists counted between 100 and 200 of the thumbnail-sized, blue and orange-tinged butterflies living in Ballona.
In 2015 they counted 504 — a boon year for El Segundo Blues in the dunes of Ballona, said Irena Mendez, a wetlands biologist doing pro bono work for the nonprofit environmental group Friends of Ballona Wetlands.
But this year something seems to be disrupting the Ballona colony’s reproduction patterns, and Mendez is seeing fewer of the butterflies.
El Segundo Blues have only one food source, the native coastal buckwheat plant, and five years of drought have reduced moisture levels in many of those plants.
“I think it could be a response to environmental factors that we haven’t totally understood. And the drought might be catching up to the butterflies if there’s a difference in moisture in the buckwheat plants,” said Mendez, who expects to finish this year’s population count in September.
The El Segundo Blue population at the 307-acre LAX dune preserve is also down. The 2015 population estimate there was 24,559 to 25,641 butterflies — a decrease of 11% from 2014, Los Angeles World Airport Environmental Manager Rob Freeman said.
Freeman is certain the drought is presenting a challenge, but the good news is that he expects the El Segundo Blue will overcome it.
“The cause of the decrease is undoubtedly related to extended drought conditions impacting the butterflies’ host plant, the coastal buckwheat. Our butterfly population is responding naturally to environmental factors which have been observed previously, and the overall population is not at risk,” he said.
“In nature there are natural fluctuations, and with butterflies there are always population fluctuations. There are moth populations that have astronomical crashes from one year to the next and then they rebound. So I don’t think there’s cause for alarm,” she said.
But sometimes nature needs a little help.
OTHER SPECIES TAKE FLIGHT
Much of the coastal buckwheat that sustains the El Segundo Blues was planted over the years by Friends of the Ballona Wetlands scientists and volunteers as part of the group’s efforts to remove invasive, non-native plants — namely iceplant, commonly used as a ground-cover plant throughout Southern California.
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands founder Ruth Lansford said that painstaking work of removing iceplant has been the key to the return of the El Segundo Blue and other native species.
“It’s amazing. We’re seeing so many species coming back, a lot of them on their own since we got rid of the iceplant,” Lansford said.
These and similar restoration efforts have aided in the return of other species.
The California Gnatcatcher, a federally designated threatened species (at risk of becoming endangered), had disappeared from the Ballona Wetlands for more than a century until naturalist Tracy Drake spotted four of them — and later a nest with hatchlings — in the dunes area in 2013.
The Least Bell’s Vireo, a tiny bird that’s endangered in Southern California, showed up in 2010, when two nestlings were photographed in Ballona.
Biologist Edith Read, who manages the Ballona Freshwater Marsh at Playa Vista, said a group of Least Bell’s Vireos have been heard singing recently at the west end of the riparian corridor below Loyola Marymount University.
So they’re still hanging around, “but I haven’t gotten any confirmation of nesting yet,” Read said.
RETURN OF THE PINCUSHION
One of the more colorful returns of a threatened or endangered to the wetlands has been the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion. This rare flower in the daisy family once blanketed large swaths of coastal sand dunes in Southern California and the Baja Peninsula but has been devastated by rampant coastal development.
The Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion had completely disappeared from local beaches until 2010, when biologist Roy van de Hoek of the nonprofit Ballona Institute noticed some of them growing in the Marina Peninsula and stopped a construction crew from digging them up.
The flower remains classified by the California Fish and Wildlife Department as rare, threatened or endangered in California, but for several summers now there have been massive blooms in the peninsula, particularly east of Pacific Avenue.
A small colony of Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushions have also been spotted near the buckwheat plants in Ballona that sustain the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, as have two other species listed by the California Native Plant Society as rare or endangered: the Lewis’ Evening Primrose and the Suffrutescent Wallflower.
Read said the Lewis’ Evening Primrose and the Suffrutescent Wallflower had been in Ballona before the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands began removing the iceplant, but “probably would have eventually disappeared” if the iceplant had been allowed to stay and continue crowding it out.
“The primrose species are always a delight to see flowering in the restoration area,” said Karina Johnston, a restoration biologist with the nonprofit Bay Foundation, which has done restoration work in the wetlands. “In addition to the rare Lewis, the area also contains the beach evening primrose, which is a native species common to open dunes and sandy areas in Southern California.”
Friends of Ballona Wetlands donors got a glimpse of what nature can do when aided by restoration efforts during a recent tour of the wetlands dune area, spotting several mating El Segundo Blues.
Dolores Heffernan said she and her late husband learned a great deal about nature when they began taking tours of the wetlands more than two decades ago and soon became donors to the wetlands group.
“We grew up in rural areas, so we value nature. And this is the last remaining wetlands, so it’s priceless. It’s worth saving,” she said.
Mendez was surprised to see the cluster of butterflies, which makes her hopeful that this year’s slower-growing population has yet to peak. After all, the butterflies transitioned from their pupil stage to their flight stage a few days later this year.
Bryce Smith and Dorothy Benveniste are two of the hundreds of volunteers who have removed tons of iceplant from the wetlands over the past three decades, allowing native coastal buckwheat to take hold.
“I’ve always been interested in nature and native plants, and [volunteering] gives you a chance to get out and get your hands dirty by touching nature,” said Smith, who lives in Westchester. “By volunteering I feel like I’ m contributing to all of the biodiversity of the wetlands.”
“I live here and I want to do my part to protect the native habitat because there are far too many people and too few animals,” added Benveniste, a Playa Vista resident.