When the El Segundo blue butterfly was spotted earlier this summer at two locations in the South Bay, scientists and conservationists were galvanized about the possibilities that the winged insect, which is on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list, could be resurrected in other areas along the coast as well.
Spotted as far south as Redondo Beach and Torrance, the El Segundo blue butterfly was thought to venture only within a certain radius of its habitat.
But sightings in the South Bay and near the butterfly’s largest habitat along the coast near the Los Angeles International Airport on Vista del Mar have naturalists and environmentalists actively pondering the best methods to bring the species to Playa del Rey.
Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, a biologist with the Ballona Institute, firmly believes that the butterfly could establish a colony in the Ballona Wetlands under the proper conditions.
“A controlled laboratory experiment or translocation would be the way to get the best results for bringing the El Segundo blue butterfly to the Ballona Wetlands,” the naturalist stated.
Translocation is the process of transporting an animal, plant, insect or reptile from one habitat to another for the purpose of reintroducing it to its native habitat or giving it a new home similar to its native surroundings.Van de Hoek cited previous successful experiments with the California condor and the wolf in Yellowstone Park as examples of how to actively restore a population to its origins or help establish it in new surroundings. In these experiments, the animals were set free in their natural habitat after careful study and scientific research in a controlled laboratory environment.
Any effort at reintroduction could take several years, according to van de Hoek.
In the case of the El Segundo blue, it’s all about what’s on the menu and the dining ambiance. Buckwheat plants near sand dunes are what these fragile creatures prefer to eat and it is on these plants that the female lays her eggs. And because the Ballona Wetlands has marshes with sandy soil and sand dunes, the setting couldn’t be better.
The wetlands, a bountiful grouping of ecosystems, is ripe for attracting plants and animals that were both native to the area or could thrive under current conditions. Restoration efforts are under way in the wildlife and plant habitat, with several environmental groups, including the Ballona Institute, the Sierra Club and the Friends of Ballona Wetlands involved in weeding and removing non-native plants from the area.
According to Kelly Rose, education and restoration director of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the drive to lure some of the indigenous species back to the wetlands has attracted the attention of environmentalists and others who have an interest in conserving the largest coastal wetlands in Los Angeles County.
“It is definitely a desire on our part to reintroduce the El Segundo blue, as well as other species at some point,” Rose said in a recent interview.
“It has always been a thought” to establish an El Segundo blue butterfly habitat in the Ballona Wetlands, says Brad Henderson, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game, who for years worked on restoration projects in the wetlands. The ongoing projects complement each other on an environmental basis, he says.
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 now works in central California near the Sierra Nevada.
The California Department of Fish and Game owns the land, and any restoration project involving plants, insects or animals would require departmental approval and a permit. The organizations working there now have permission to conduct the initial groundwork for weed and non-native planting removal, but to date no permits have been issued for species restoration.
Translocation and captive breeding are the best methods for reintroduction of a species, van de Hoek said, and for that, scientific oversight is necessary. “It is not only necessary, it’s critical and essential,” he emphasized.
While he applauds and supports the efforts of Rose and her volunteers, van de Hoek alleges that what the Friends of Ballona Wetlands is doing is not wildlife restoration. “I would call it native planting and landscaping,” he offered.
“What’s going on is active restoration,” Rose countered. “We have observed native species in dunes that we are helping to reestablish valuable, regionally appropriate habitat.
“We’re not just gardening out here.”
There is active interest in other species among scholars as well. Dr. Martin RamÌrez, an associate professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), has been involved with the wetlands since his days as an undergraduate at LMU.
A year-long study commissioned by the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles County while RamÌrez was a student resulted in his publishing one of the first extensive research analyses on the natural resources of the marshes. His interest in the beauty and history of the area continued as a graduate student and professor, and he has since conducted various studies on mollusks, coastal beetles and spiders that reside in or near coastal sand dunes.
“Recently, we have been studying spiders and the geometry of their webs, because how they position their webs can affect how much direct sunlight they receive,” RamÌrez explained. “On cold days, we have learned that these spiders position their webs in such a way to maximize collection of sunlight.”
A grant from LMU has funded a study on the impact that pollution can have on coastal insects.
“We have found an accumulation of heavy metals in many spiders in the Ballona Wetlands,” said the professor. The Ballona sand dunes are of great interest to him, he said.
“The Ballona Wetlands and the sand dunes are both small pieces of what used to be a larger ecosystem,” he said.
Along with the El Segundo blue, the wetlands could become home again to several other plants, animals and insects, environmentalists believe, largely because of the marsh’s numerous sand dunes.
“The harvester ant, the horned lizard and the pocket mouse all live in and around sand dunes,” van de Hoek pointed out.
The California quail is another fowl that could return, given the fact that the bushes where it likes to nest are now accessible.
“I think that we could start translocation with the quail because of the removal of weeds and non-native bushes by Kelly’s group and others,” van de Hoek said. “I think that it would be a very novel and innovative concept to work with.”
LMU is involved in a comprehensive investigation of the Ballona Wetlands’ biological reserve, and biologists have learned that many species that inhabit the wetlands are living isolated experiences.
“Because of the drought, many of their populations may drop down very low,” said RamÌrez. “And when a population at any given site disappears, it might be a long time before they appear again.”
For Rose, while she and others recognize that currently there is not sufficient habitat for it, drawing the El Segundo blue to the wetlands could serve as proof that the restoration efforts there can succeed.
“Those of us who care about the environment care about the species that are endangered, like the El Segundo blue,” Rose said.
She, van de Hoek and RamÌrez feel very fortunate to have the Ballona Wetlands in such close proximity.
“For us, it’s like having a living research laboratory in our backyard,” said RamÌrez.