This Tiny, Blue Butterfly Is in Trouble. Local Conservationists Are Fighting to Change That

The El Segundo Blue Butterfly has been on the federal list of endangered species since the 1970s—will habitat restoration save the day?

There’s a small crowd hovering over the seacliff buckwheat in a native plant garden outside of the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. They’re looking for the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, but this endangered species can be hard to spot. It’s tiny; roughly comparable in size to a thumbnail is how the folks from Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, the nonprofit that organized this public group tour, describes them.

In 1976, the El Segundo Blue Butterfly was added to the federal list of endangered species. It’s still there. This curious creature, which was recently found to be its own species, exists between the LAX Dunes and Point Vicente. It stays close to the coast, where the seacliff buckwheat, the only plant that serves as its habitat, grows along dunes and cliffs. While decades of habitat destruction have placed the El Segundo Blue Butterfly in a perilous position, Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy and other conservation groups throughout the South Bay have worked to help this tiny insect survive. Habitat restoration, says Austin Parker, a biologist with the Land Conservancy, is the best way to do that.

“There are small pockets of habitat left or places that could be habitat,” says Parker. “Places like the Preserve here—the Alta Vicente Preserve and the Vicente Bluffs Preserve—they exhibit the right conditions.”

With the work that’s already taken place in the area, they have seen the population expand. “This is one step closer to down-listing and then de-listing, hopefully,” says Parker.

If you want a chance to see an El Segundo Blue Butterfly, right now is a good time. The butterflies, whose lives only last about a week, typically begin their flight season in late May and that lasts until around early-to-mid August. But, there’s another reason why you need to look closely for them: El Segundo Blue butterflies do a pretty good job of blending into their surroundings. Only the top portion of the male butterflies’ wings are blue. When they land on a buckwheat flower and fold their wings up to reveal a black and white print, they’re nearly camouflaged.

blue butterfly
An El Segundo Blue Butterfly at Vicente Bluffs Reserve

Courtesy Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy

As for the female butterflies, you might strain your eyes trying to figure out what it is unless someone like Megan Wolff, the Land Conservancy’s volunteer coordinator as well as the garden manager for California Native Plant Society, South Coast Chapter, is around to point one out to you. That’s what happened when I saw my first El Segundo Blue Butterfly on Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the tour began.

The small garden sits between two spots on the nature preserve where populations of the butterfly already existed. “By adding in the host plant, seacliff buckwheat, we were able to populate the garden with El Segundo Blue Butterflies,” says Wolff. Not only has this project helped bolster the population on the preserve, but it demonstrates ideas that locals can apply at home. “It shows that people can do that in their home gardens as well and help with this effort as part of little patch habitats along the coast line,” she explains. “That’s very much part of this effort, as well as different efforts along the Preserve that the Conservancy is doing.”

Founded in 1988, the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy cares for 1,600 acres of land in Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, and San Pedro, including Portuguese Bend, White Point Nature Preserve, Abalone Cove, and this area adjacent to the Point Vicente Lighthouse. “Our role is to help plant native plants and restore this Palos Verdes nature preserve,” says Adrienne Mohan, the Land Conservancy’s executive director.

It’s not just about the plants. The native flora helps sustain, and hopefully increase, local wildlife populations. “There are a few that we’re particularly concerned about,” says Mohan. One is a bird called the California gnat catcher, whose population has been impacted due to development. “Because of our nature restoration, we’re seeing more nesting activity and their population is rebounding,” says Mohan.

They’ve also made efforts to improve the habitats for coastal cactus wren and, in 2020, they released Palos Verdes Blue butterflies bred in captivity into local habitats. The Palos Verdes Blue is a particularly rare butterfly that is endemic to the peninsula. Helping strengthen El Segundo Blue butterfly is another one of their missions.

The Land Conservancy also runs a native plant nursery and store, where they sell seacliff buckwheat, as well as California sagebrush, narrow-leaf milkweed, and other plants local to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. In spring and fall, they sell butterfly baskets, each of which includes native plants that specifically attract pollinators. The goal is to get local groups to plant these where they can.

“The public is becoming a lot more aware of the benefits of native plants and the importance of pollinators and what we can do in our backyard spaces, our parking strips, even small plots of gardens that we have,” says Mohan. “We can put these plants in and they will attract pollinators and butterflies.”

While you’ll have to live very close to the beach to have a shot at attracting the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, there are plenty of others who need the habitat. Mohan says that they, like so many others in Southern California, are also concerned about Monarch butterflies. But, the Monarch’s plight is indicative of a wider phenomenon.

“All species are essentially at risk,” says Parker. “Even if they’re not listed or they’re not critical or anything like that, the amount of habitat destruction being done for everything we do—houses, agriculture, everything on our list of things that we do as a species—it takes away habitat.”

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