Playa del Rey, California (Tuesday, July 28, 2015) – On a sunny Saturday in coastal Los Angeles County’s Ballona Wetlands, flurries of tiny, blue butterflies were out and about dazzling observers with their courtship displays. Local nonprofit environmental organization Friends of Ballona Wetlands (Friends) facilitated this opportunity by hosting some of their constituents at the “We’ve Got the Blues” event celebrating the comeback of the El Segundo Blue butterflies (“Blues”). These insects, usually less than 1-inch across with their wings open, thrive in their blooming coastal buckwheat habitat – the coastal buckwheat is their only host plant. However, the Ballona Wetlands population of Blues wasn’t always this abundant and active; they are a federally listed endangered species that, until recently, were thought to have been extirpated from the area.
In 2011, Daniel S. Cooper, an environmental consultant who regularly monitors birds and other wildlife, discovered a small population of Blues in the wetland dunes. The population subsequently exploded from thirty residents to, four years later, hundreds of Blues in the area.
The Friends invited Dr. Irena Mendez, a natural resources consultant for Psomas, who monitors this Blues population, to share her wealth of knowledge about the extraordinary butterflies. As participants at the afternoon outing enjoyed refreshments and guided tours of the coastal buckwheat habitat, Mendez explained that the population of butterflies had more than doubled since her last survey in 2013.
She emphasized the importance of continuing to preserve the dwindling habitat for the Blues – limited to just three locations locally including the Ballona Wetlands. She said that the site of the “We’ve Got the Blues” event is a great example of both riparian vegetation and the butterflies’ coastal scrub habitat. She also added that, “Given that so few of these habitats are left, it is a wonder that it has matured so much, climaxing with the restoration efforts to eliminate non-native plant species in the area.”
At the same time, there is still more research that needs to be done to study the butterflies to plan for their long-term survival. Dr. Eric Strauss, Executive Director of the Friends’ partner organization, the Center for Urban Resilience at Loyola Marymount University, informed the group that, “The butterflies are a hyper-local species; you only find them here. Moving forward, we will have to carefully monitor the population because genetic diversity allows us to predict the long-term stability.” He also reinforced the criticality of preserving the coastal buckwheat habitat.
The Friends have played an important role in sustaining this now flourishing population and, also, in recruiting volunteers to work on restoring the surrounding native wetland vegetation. Longtime supporter and former Board President, Jacob Lipa, praised their work: “The Friends are leading the effort on community engagement in this area in terms of restoration and education.”
Lipa, President of Psomas and CEO of Micropolitan, who managed the engineering and the construction of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh, recalled fondly the many years that he had spent removing invasive ice plant from the wetland habitat with the Friends alongside a variety of other community members – especially schoolchildren. “It’s a remarkable change,” he said gazing out at the landscape. “We love nature and it’s a joy to work towards restoring it.”
Jim Lamm, an architect, urban planner and former President of Ballona Creek Renaissance, another nonprofit organization working “up the Creek” in the Ballona Wetlands, affirmed the Friends’ role as a valuable partner. Working with Ballona Creek Renaissance, the Friends have led events such as a field trip for a 3rd grade class from a local elementary school located in the Ballona Watershed to the Wetlands and a native plant restoration volunteer day with the Mar Vista Family Center. “We need to partner, partner, partner because we can’t do it all ourselves,” said Lamm. He added: “The beauty of all of this work is that we get people around the table to collaborate.”
Ruth Lansford, Founder and former President of the Friends’ Board of Directors shed light on the history of the work that the organization has been doing: “The Friends have taken 3 major actions that have brought positive change to Ballona. First, the freshwater marsh which now supports more species than ever before; two, the installation of tidegates to bring more water in the wetlands leading to the first increase of the endangered Beldings Savannah sparrow population since recording began; and three, the planting of dune buckwheat which has brought this unique butterfly back home. She added that it is essential to constantly be paying attention to the latest research on the wetlands because, “We are very proud of these achievements and are looking forward to the next step when Ballona becomes a true wetland habitat once more.”
Lisa Fimiani, Executive Director of the Friends, affirmed that the organization has been doing everything it can to restore and maintain the coastal dune buckwheat habitat – not only for the Blues – but also for all of the dunes animals and insects. As a volunteer back in the 80s she remembers removing invasive ice plant where today’s buckwheat is thriving. “I never thought we’d get rid of it all – but we did!” Taking the advice of Dr. Irena Mendez in 2013, the Friends have improved the habitat even more. We are stewards of the land and protectors of the habitat. We are not just paying lip service; we are walking the walk.” She went on to say, “Habitat restoration works; it brings back biodiversity, enriching our lives with beauty and the complexity of nature.”
Moving forward, Lansford emphasized that the return of the Blues was just one step towards the larger restoration effort that has yet to be implemented. She offered, “This is an opportunity to restore the last major wetland between Point Mugu and Bolsa Chica. The importance to wildlife cannot be overstated, but it’s also important to humans. People realize how fortunate they are to live in a place like this – precious open space in an increasingly crowded Los Angeles.”
About the Author: Laurel Hunt is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at CURes. She has a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles. The emphasis of her graduate studies was on climate change adaptation, regional environmental sustainability and community-based participatory planning. At UCLA, she served as the Director of the Sustainable Resource Center and founder of the campus’ first-ever sustainability film festival, Green Screens. She brings to her role as Director of Strategic Partnerships at CURes experience working for Los Angeles environmental nonprofit organizations as well as for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C. policy and advocacy organization. Currently, Laurel leads the Mediterranean City Climate Change Consortium (MC-4), a global climate action network of practitioners, policymakers, business leaders and academics. She is also the Managing Editor of Cities and the Environment (CATE) Journal, a peer-reviewed online scholarly publication dedicated to the study of urban ecology. CATE is jointly supported by CURes and the U.S. Forest Service.