Earth Science Students Help Hillside Morph for Endangered Butterfly

To the casual observer there may seem to be little happening on a certain patch of dirt on the Linden H. Chandler Preserve in Rolling Hills Estates. However, to the trained eye this awkwardly sloping hillside – about the square footage of the average Starbucks coffee shop – is undergoing a metamorphosis that holds a world of hope for a delicate and beautiful creature once thought to be extinct – the Palos Verdes blue butterfly.

CSU Dominguez Hills earth science students and instructor Judy King-Rundel tend to the Palos Verdes blue butterfly restoration site on the Linden H. Chandler Preserve.

As part of a multi-organizational effort to bring back the butterfly, California State University, Dominguez Hills earth science students – five seniors, one graduate student and one recent graduate – and their instructor have volunteered in the field working to help secure the future of the diminutive flutterers that go by the scientific name Glaucopsyche lygdamus palosverdesensis.

The Palos Verdes blue butterfly was designated as an endangered species in 1980 by the federal government. By the early 1980s, the blue butterfly was thought to have been completely killed off due to habitat loss from urban development, and other factors such as off-road vehicle traffic, weed control and non-native plant invasion.

Luckily, a remnant population was discovered in 1994 at the Defense Fuel Support Point in San Pedro. With that, reintroduction efforts were aflutter.

The university’s butterfly habitat restoration is part of a number of concurrent projects led by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy (PVPLC).

“We began a native garden on campus as service-learning project that was funded by a grant from Southern California Edison Company last spring,” said Judy King-Rundel, lecturer of earth sciences at CSU Dominguez Hills. “Once it was done, students were enthusiastic to begin another project. Since the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy was our community partner on the service-learning project, it was easy to jump on the blue butterfly project.”

A female Palos Verdes blue butterfly rests on a deerweed plant. Photo coursey of Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy.

The volunteers are hoping the butterfly will rebound in spades. However, the fliers, which live as butterflies for about 10 days, won’t automatically emerge. They must be bred and reintroduced to the area.

“We won’t see them unless we release them. It’s BYOB… bring your own butterflies,” King-Rundel said with a chuckle.

The lofty creatures are being cultivated 60 miles away from the reintroduction site by a group of students from Moorpark Community College, under the direction of biologist Dr. Jana Johnson.  She honed the breeding method through a laborious trial and error process over the last few years, King-Rundel said. And it’s a good thing that Johnson is successful, because not just anyone is able to breed the Palos Verdes blue butterfly, and more importantly – because their cultivation is highly regulated – not just anyone has permission to breed them.

“We aren’t licensed to cultivate butterflies because the Palos Verdes blue butterfly is an endangered species,” said King-Rundel of the CSU Dominguez Hills volunteer group.

Instead, CSU Dominguez Hills students are helping to ensure the azure butterflies survive once released. More individuals live in captivity than in the wild according to Ann Dalkey, stewardship associate in research at PVPLC. Through the habitat restoration project with CSU Dominguez Hills, the conservancy is working toward reversing this statistic.

The butterflies are very particular about the conditions in which they live. King-Rundel said they are known to only thrive in coastal sage scrub plant communities in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which is situated along the coastal region south of Los Angeles. Even more specifically, the butterflies seem to insist on arid northern facing slopes in areas where wind is minimal.

The parched parcel of land on the Linden H. Chandler Preserve in Rolling Hills Estates not only meets the necessary criteria, but it benefits from a certain protection.

“Rather than let this property be developed, the Chandler family gave it to the PVP Land Conservancy,” said King-Rundel.

Having a place to call home for the long-term, the dainty residents-to-be need the habitat move-in ready before they arrive.

The blue butterflies – and their larvae – are known to feed exclusively on Astragalus trichopodus, commonly known as locoweed, milk vetch or rattlepod, and also on Lotus scoparius also called deerweed or California broom. So, the volunteers from CSU Dominguez Hills spent the summer planting a little more than 300 of the two plant varieties in the hillside where the butterflies will be released. It’s been a learning experience giving the students a better understanding of the geography and its ecosystem.

“The Lotus – which is one of the plants we’re planting; it’s having trouble growing because its roots are so short. It’s a little harder to grow than Astragulus, which is thriving,” Ri Ek said of the area she has been helping to tend. “Because of that, [the Lotus plants] are going to bloom a little later than February, which is the [time of the] release of the butterflies.”

To ensure they have enough blossoming plants for their gossamer guests, the students have added on a side project. They have been helping a PVPLC stewardship manager to plant seeds and grow additional Lotus and Astragalus plants at a nursery on San Pedro’s Defense Fuel Support Point facility.

After watering plants, student volunteers remove weeds and touch up “bowls.”

Getting the area ready, the student volunteers initially carried buckets of water to the thirsty starter plants from a spigot about 30 yards down the hill (until one of them bought a garden house for the project), they shoveled horse manure from the adjacent bridal trail to fertilize the plants, and with some help from PVPLC stewards who trimmed weeds, the students cleared the land, turned the soil one foot deep, and transplanted a single young plant into 300 “bowls” they formed by hand. (The bowls act as moats, so water will pool and settle into the roots, rather than run off the surface of the slope).

The project, which began in June, is ahead of schedule, giving the plants a chance to establish themselves before the butterflies arrive, said CSU Dominguez Hills student volunteer Jenny Greer. But the volunteer team faces a challenge that may set back their progress. That challenge is George.

“George the gopher is eating plants faster than we can plant them. We’ve already replaced 32 plants that George has eaten,” said Greer, who named the rodent. “I counted again; he ate ten more.”

While the area looks like it has little to offer, the young plants will do in a pinch.

“These are California natives. They actually should not be that tasty to gofers,” King-Rundel said, pointing out the small drought-tolerant plants. “Gophers love grass roots, but all the grass has dried up, so they’re desperate and they’ll eat whatever is available to them.”

George is harvesting the plants from beneath the surface, pulling them down roots and all.

“George is just taking the whole thing and going ‘slurrrppp.’ It’s just like in cartoons!” Greer said, adding that she thinks she’ll win the battle against George’s destructive appetite without resorting to eradication methods. “We grow [the plants] at the nursery and then we bring them back and we plant them. Eventually they’re going to grow bigger and fill in some of the spaces.”

Butterfly project volunteers and CSU Dominguez Hills earth science majors (left to right) Russ Hartranft, Ri Ek, Jenny Greer, and Jonathan Campos.

The student volunteers will continue to tend to the reintroduction site and plan to be on hand for the release of the butterflies sometime between March and May.

“Even though it was hot, dirty and physically demanding, it was rewarding and we are thrilled to be a part of reestablishing the Palos Verdes blue butterfly’s natural habitat within the Chandler Preserve,” said Greer.

The volunteers still need equipment to help them complete the project. They are in need of three orange buckets from Home Depot ($4), one three-gallon bucket (4 for $12 from Western Planting Solutions), 12 Gopher baskets, 75′ (or longer) kink-free hose ($36), five hand trowels ($8), and one water wand ($8).

For more information on the butterfly project and how to help, contact Judy King-Rundel at (310) 243-3205 or jking@csudh.edu.

Comments

  1. Joanie Harmon says:

    Wonderful story, Laura – great job on the research and on sharing another example of CSUDH working to make the South Bay a better place!

  2. A truly fantastic experience! Judy and Earth Science students do ROCK :)

  3. Andrew Wang says:

    I have been involved with the PVPLC and sometimes this is what I do.

  4. This outstanding work, led by Judy King-Rundel, and fueled by the energy, creativity and passion of CSU Domiguez Hills students, is truly remarkable. They are applying their disciplinary knowledge to provide a community service to us all — restoring native habitats and helping an endangered species. Bravo to all involved!

  5. Earth Science students ROCK, and you are models for us all! You make us proud.