Blue's Blues : Part of the Habitat of an Endangered Butterfly Is Buried Under Compost

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a delicate creature with a life span of five days, a weight somewhere between that of a BB and a dove's feather, whose only home in the world is a few plants on a few acres of a Navy fuel depot, the endangered Palos Verdes blue butterfly has endured a remarkable amount of attention. And inattention.

Believed to have been driven to extinction by development on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the federally protected insect made news around the scientific world when it was rediscovered in March 1994. Two years later, the diminutive, sky-blue butterfly is facing yet another threat: Perhaps 10% of its habitat has been buried beneath dense compost dumped by a landscaping company.

The blanketing of three acres of the "PV blue's" 30-acre habitat with grass, leaves, shredded tree limbs and, possibly, insecticides is probably not an immediate death knell for the butterfly, said UCLA scientist Rudi Mattoni, who first reported the creatures extinct and later rediscovered them. But long term, it may jeopardize the balance biologists and amateur naturalists believed they were just beginning to achieve after thousands of hours of work to restore the habitat.

"When you're dealing with an insect that is as close to extinction as the butterfly is, [the loss of habitat] could be critical," said an angry Mattoni.

The Navy on Tuesday asked the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to take the case. It is a violation of federal law to disturb the habitat of endangered species.

The San Pedro company that dumped the tons of compost, Gaudenti & Sons Corp., says it was simply doing a good deed at the request of a local girls softball league, which has leased a corner of the Navy property next to the butterflies' home for six years. It was "paving" a ballpark parking area with the mulch to keep down weeds, said Robert W. Gaudenti, using mulch it typically sells for $1 to $1.50 per cubic yard.

The president of the league, Jesse Ibarra, says that he asked Gaudenti to spread the mulch in the parking lot, but not over acres of the butterflies' home next door. Gaudenti says that's untrue, and that Ibarra asked him to use the mulch to create a bigger parking area for the league.

"We knew nothing about butterflies," Ibarra said. "We were just trying to give kids a place to play."

Neither side has agreed to clean up the area or "cooperate with the Navy in any meaningful way," according to a Navy memo written Tuesday, so the Navy is calling for the criminal investigation.

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Like the spotted owl and the gnatcatcher, the butterfly--which developers had hoped would be removed from the endangered species list during its long disappearance--has become yet another symbol of environmental overreaction, developers contend. But dozens of peninsula naturalists, hundreds of South Bay school students and an Air Force colonel, among others, have become enamored and fiercely protective of a butterfly they are proud to say exists nowhere else on the planet.

First discovered in the late 1970s, the population of 100 to 200 was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1980. Three years later, the city of Rancho Palos Verdes churned up a lot at Hesse Park to create a ball field, and when spring came, all the butterflies had vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Criminal charges were filed against the city but dismissed when a federal judge declared that a municipality could not be held criminally responsible for violating the Endangered Species Act. Although environmentalists were disheartened, the case resulted in the rewriting of the act to hold municipalities responsible, said Chris Nagano, an entomologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But news of the butterfly's demise proved exaggerated, and in 1994 a colony rose again. Six separate groups have now been identified.

"There's one! There, there!" said Air Force Lt. Col. Charles Gross, clad in a T-shirt promoting the butterfly as he pointed out a perfect specimen during a recent tour of the Navy depot.

Gross, who oversees the Defense Fuel Supply Center in San Pedro, has worked along with hundreds of others to provide "a little refuge in a sea of development" for the PV blue on Navy land.

The fragile butterfly, which appears for only a matter of weeks each spring, makes its home in just two plants, deer weed and locoweed, both of which are native to the area. It lays its eggs on the small, unremarkable plants, and the eggs hatch into caterpillars, which feed on the plants. The caterpillars then drop to the leaf litter below the plants, form into pupae and spend most of a year metamorphosing into butterflies that survive less than a week.

More aggressive, non-native plants, primarily ice plant, have so pervaded the terrain as to leave only a handful of scattered patches of locoweed and deer weed.

Audubon YES! (Youth Environmental Services), made up of junior high and high school students, and the local citizens group Rhapsody in Green have spent the last year yanking thousands of the tangled ice plants from the soil and replacing them with native species. More than 250 volunteers--including a two-star Army general--showed up March 3 to perform the dirty habitat-restoration work.

The Navy has kicked in $84,500. And Chevron, which was digging a pipeline channel through the naval land to the harbor, halted work immediately when a euphoric Mattoni told bulldozer operators the butterfly had returned.

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The extraordinary efforts on behalf of the butterfly have paid off, scientists say, and despite a relatively harsh winter in 1994-95, the population is believed to be between 200 and 500, probably more than when they were rediscovered.

But one of the six remaining colonies lives just outside one of the patches of compost. And scientists worry that any backyard chemicals in the mulch could leach into the ground water and poison the nearby native plants and the butterflies themselves.

No one had yet studied the acreage where the mulch was dumped, but it was believed to be perfect habitat for the butterflies.

So it was a bittersweet moment for Nagano and Wildlife Service biologist Marj Nelson when two butterflies appeared suddenly over the mulch--adding to the known population but confirming that habitat had indeed been lost.

Mattoni, a geography lecturer, has begun a captive breeding program for the butterfly, with 20 specimens now metamorphosing. And he hopes to breed and release perhaps 500 next year, which could nudge the butterfly back from the brink--unless next winter is too cold, the spring too hot, the weather too wet or too dry.

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The Blue Butterfly

Here is a profile of teh endangered Palos Verdes blue butterfly, which inhabits Navy land in San Pedro.

Life span: Five days as a butterfly.

Size: Two- inch wingspan.

Habitat: 30 acres of coastal bluffs on the southern half of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Description: Wings of the males are blue, fringed in white; the undersides are silvery blue with small black dots surrounded by white halos. The females are brownish blue.

Population: An estimated 200 to 500 adults.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state Department of Fish and Game

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