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A Butterfly Flutters Back From the Brink


Rising from the dead to dispute its own obituary, a fragile blue butterfly believed to have been extinct for more than a decade has been rediscovered on Navy land in San Pedro.

Scientists had thought all Palos Verdes blue butterflies had been destroyed by development years ago, and virtually everyone had given up hope and stopped looking for the endangered species.

But now, in a surprising find demonstrating that nature may always mystify scientists, about 100 of the graceful butterflies have been found flitting around a pocket of deer weed at a Navy fuel depot next to Chevron's oil refinery.

Known as the "PV blue," the butterfly had been something of a cause celebre, its case often invoked by biologists to illustrate how endangered-species protection can come too late for animals and plants teetering on the edge of extinction.

The pale blue butterfly with black spots was protected as an endangered species in 1980, but none had been seen since 1983, when the city of Rancho Palos Verdes rototilled a lot at Hesse Park to build a ballfield. Criminal charges were filed against the city, but a federal court dismissed them in 1987, ruling that a municipality cannot be held criminally responsible for violating the Endangered Species Act.

Ironically, the same scientist who had originally reported them extinct discovered earlier this month that the PV blue is very much still alive.

Rudi Mattoni, a visiting professor in UCLA's geography department, was the last scientist to see the butterfly alive 11 years ago, and had given up hope. Just last year, in the first sentence of a new scientific report, he referred to the Palos Verdes blue as "now certainly extinct."

Then, on March 10, Mattoni and two other researchers were at the Navy's Defense Fuel Supply Point--which had never been investigated for butterflies--to trap insects as part of a biological survey of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

At the time, bulldozers were digging up the area to replace part of a Chevron pipeline that runs through the naval base to the harbor, so Mattoni wanted to take a closer look at the habitat there. Suddenly, entomologist Rick Rogers yelled to Mattoni: "There goes a Palos Verdes butterfly!" They ran over and identified three of them.

"We just stumbled across them," Mattoni said. "It was a hell of a find. . . . This was total serendipity. We were there at the right time on the right day."

Mattoni asked Chevron's plant manager to stop the maintenance work, and he complied immediately. The next day, Mattoni went back and saw a dozen more of the butterflies, and in the past few days the discovery has been verified by entomologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Rudi was the last one to see them before they disappeared, so it's only justice that he rediscovered them, since he has spent so much time on them," said John Hanlan, branch chief for federal projects at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Carlsbad.

But the PV blue is not out of danger yet, and the federal wildlife agency is taking no chances. Mattoni was granted permission to net some of the butterflies and breed them in captivity.

Only a handful of such reappearance cases have been reported nationally--including the infamous snail darter in the Southeast.

"It's rare but not unheard of that a species should reappear," said David Klinger of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Klinger said the federal wildlife agency routinely leaves species on the endangered list for years--as it has with the PV blue--even when they are assumed gone, because some insects can lie dormant as pupae in the soil for several years.

"You never want to remove them totally from the list unless you are certain that all hope is gone," because once they are declared extinct it leaves them unprotected should the species reappear, Klinger said.

The discovery could reignite controversy over development on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, since it means that more thorough biological surveys must be conducted in the area before development projects are approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Land owners in the Palos Verdes area had hoped the butterfly would be removed from the nation's endangered list and classified as extinct, which would have streamlined the process for obtaining permission to build. Developers there are already facing restraints on use of their land because the California gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird, was listed as a threatened species last year.

The field inhabited by the butterflies is a rare area of undisturbed natural habitat left on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Only a few acres of deer weed and locoweed--the plants where the butterfly lay their eggs--remain, and all are fragmented.

"When you don't see a fragile butterfly for 10 years, you assume it's extinct, " Mattoni said. "They (the Navy) haven't paid any particular attention to the habitat, yet it hung on."

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