2011 is rapidly becoming the “summer of discovery” in the Ballona Wetlands.

Recent sightings of the federally designated endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly in the state-owned ecological reserve is energizing environmentalists who want to see the wetlands rehabilitated and flourishing again.

Approximately 30 El Segundo blue butterflies in the dune restoration area of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve were observed in an area where the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands have been working to restore sand dune habitat.

The discovery came about during commission bird surveys in the wetlands, according to Karina Johnston, a restoration biologist with the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

There was no evidence this summer of reproductive activity in the reserve’s dunes, Johnston said, but the presence of the endangered butterfly and its use of the site is a great start.

“It’s a really good sign that they are utilizing the site,” the restoration biologist told The Argonaut.

Dan Cooper, a wildlife photographer, photographed the El Segundo Blue in the western region of the Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey on July 19.

Johnston said Cooper had confirmed his findings with Dr. Travis Longcore, a professor of geography and the director of Urban Ecological Research at the USC Center for Sustainable Cities.

Longcore did not return calls for commment.

The commission has been conducting baseline studies in the Ballona Wetlands as well as other ecological surveys in anticipation of a wide-reaching restoration of the 600-acre habitat for wildlife and plants, which the California Department of Fish and Game will oversee. Environmental groups had hoped that the long-waited recovery efforts would begin in the spring, but it has been delayed due to unexpected and unforeseen complications.

“This is the first time that (the El Segundo Blue) has been picked up in a survey,” Johnston noted.

Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission Coordinator Diana Hulbert told The Argonaut in an earlier interview that this type of intervention could lead to other successful discoveries. “This tells us that if you provide species with a habitat and remove the obstacles to the ecosystem, they can come back,” she predicted.

The Ballona Reserve was identified as one of four “recovery units,” or potential habitats, in the state Fish and Wildlife federal recovery plan for the El Segundo Blue, Johnston said.

“It’s exciting to learn that this endangered species is currently utilizing the restored dune habitats on site,” the commission biologist added.

Iceplant, a heavy nonnative plant, is the bane of the existence of the El Segundo Blue butterfly because it will only consume and nest on one thing- buckwheat. And iceplant often covers the plant that the endangered butterfly craves.

The butterfly lays its eggs on coastal buckwheat, which the adults also use as a nectar source. Four years ago, some beach cities such as Redondo Beach began replacing iceplant growth near beaches with coastal buckwheat in order to provide the butterflies with more of their natural food source.

Part of the restoration efforts by the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands has been removing iceplant from the sand dunes in the area behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey.

“(Iceplants) are restraints on the natural system of the wetlands,” Hulbert noted. “If we can provide natural habitat and remove the obstacles, they can come back.”

El Segundo Blues appear to be increasing their numbers in their 200-acre designated habitat located near Los Angeles International Airport near Playa del Rey, according to airport officials. A Jan. 26 field study this year of the Dunes Restoration Project and analysis of the El Segundo Blue butterfly found an estimated population between 111,562 and 116,474, an increase of approximately 30 percent since 2009, airport officials said.

The population count was conducted by consulting entomologist Dr. Richard Arnold.

“The present count has increased remarkably from the fewer than 500 El Segundo Blue butterflies that existed in 1976 when it became the first insect to be listed as a federal endangered species,” said Robert Freeman, environmental services manager for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the city department that owns and operates LAX.

Brad Henderson, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said it had “always been a thought” to establish an El Segundo blue butterfly habitat in the Ballona Wetlands. Planting native vegetation like the buckwheat plant can have a great benefit to the wetlands, because it can stimulate population growth among other species.

“Insects and birds that are native to the wetlands could be reintroduced if another native species like the El Segundo blue were to come back,” said Henderson, who for years worked on restoration projects in the wetlands and now works in central California near the Sierra Nevada.

The butterfly is the latest species to be rediscovered or sighted in the wetlands this year. Earlier this spring, the rare Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion was discovered in the same area where the El Segundo Blue was seen.

Known as Chaenactis glab orcuttiana, its scientific name, the Argonaut first reported the sighting and subsequent identification of the rare dune flower Ballona Lagoon by members of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute at the site of a city restoration project in the Marina Peninsula.

Besides the imperiled Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion, two other rare flowers were found during the spring plant survey: the Lewis’ evening primrose (Camissonia lewisii) and the suffrutescent wallflower (Erysimum insulare ssp. Suffrutescens).

These discoveries, coupled with the findings of the endangered butterfly, indicate to Johnston that attempts to revive the wetlands is a viable mission. “It’s very exciting to see these new discoveries and it makes you think that the possibilities are really abundant,” she said. “It makes you feel a sense of excitement for the future.”

The restoration biologist said that future restoration endeavors could lead to incorporating buckwheat habitat in other locations in Ballona. “Restoration of the site holds such a high number of possibilities,” she reiterated. “The possibilities of full restoration are very amazing and very exciting.”