Hidden by the darkness of a half-moon sky, nine students and their biologist mentor waded through waist-high brush one night last week, hunting for yellow-flowering deer weed to shelter one of the rarest butterflies in America.
One student hugged a big, red cylindrical cooler. "I come bearing endangered species," she said.
It was no joke. Inside the cooler fluttered dozens of Palos Verdes blues, thumbnail-sized butterflies, all bred in captivity, most just a few days old.
The biologists' mission on a Palos Verdes Peninsula hill: Free the blues.
This was a rare moment in the race to save the federally protected butterfly, which hovered near extinction two years ago. Now, government officials have an unexpected problem on their hands. Their breeding program has been so successful that there are too many butterflies and not enough federally approved sites where they can be released.
Last spring, an estimated 220 of the species existed in the wild, so few that experts feared they could be wiped out by a single hillside brush fire. Yet in the last 12 days, 2,400 blues -- three times more than forecast -- have emerged at a laboratory housed at Moorpark College.
As a result, federal wildlife officials are scrambling to identify more sites on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to release the rare butterfly. But with a life span of only three to 38 days, hundreds of the butterflies may die in captivity.
"We've accommodated what we can with the areas that are currently available," said Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting endangered species. "They may not all get a chance to live in the wild."
Biologists can't simply release the butterflies in any nice-looking garden or park. This is a federally protected species, after all, and there are regulations to follow. Also, landowners must be willing to accept the butterflies with all their protections. Permits can take months. Officials fear publicity could attract butterfly poachers.
Even if far fewer butterflies had emerged this year, federal officials initially had no landowners permitted and willing to take them.
So when a coastal bluff was approved for a release last week, scientist Jana Johnson met her students in a kind of undercover biological mission.
It quickly ran into trouble. Winter rains had produced a profusion of wildflowers, and it was too dark to distinguish deer weed from mounds of yellow-flowered mustards and black-eyed Susans. Undeterred, team members gathered up coolers and shopping bags holding 206 butterflies and headed into the brush.
In 1983, biologists counted no more than half a dozen blues on the peninsula. A year later, none were found. At the time, experts called the butterfly the first federally protected species to go extinct in the history of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Nine years later, biologists spotted 100 blues on military land in San Pedro, and the race began anew to keep the species from "winking out" for good.
The Fish and Wildlife Service launched a captive butterfly breeding program in 1994, and Johnson began raising butterflies two years ago. Johnson, 38, is credited for the butterflies' success. With an infectious passion,she cheers them on, playing country music and the blues as they emerge from pupae.
Biologists expected only 25% of the pupae produced last year to successfully yield butterflies. The yield was 60%, instead. Johnson credits an unanticipated alignment of "cues"-- sun, temperature, even pheromones drifting from one pupae to the next.
This week she and her team are hand-feeding about 2,000 butterflies, holding out toilet paper wads soaked with honey water so that the blues can land and feed.
The population explosion continues apace. Males are mating with females in droves. Females are laying hundreds of eggs on the leaves of potted deer weed, the plant that the butterflies crave. Eggs produce larvae that swiftly consume the laboratory stock of deer weed. Not until March 2009 will another butterfly crop emerge.
When Johnson got word Friday that an undisclosed landowner would allow a release, her team sprang into action. Butterflies, however, cannot be rushed.
Students began transferring butterflies by fingertip, one by one, from cages to plastic bowls. The sunset had faded to black by the time the team reached the site and began looking for deer weed.
Drivers left their cars lined up, engines running, headlights on bright to cast a glow as they hiked into the brush.
"If anyone had ever told me I would be crazy about butterflies, I would have said they were crazy," said one student as she maneuvered a narrow road. Now, she is at the laboratory by 6:30 a.m. and has nightmares of squishing a pupae by accident.
The deer weed resembled yellow pillows of flower-studded stalks glimmering in the headlights. The students chose plants and opened the bowls.
They lifted each rare butterfly with a grace born of practice and guided it to a deer weed plant. The blues settled softly into the leaves. Glowing like a talisman behind them were the blue lights of the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
A siren pierced the silence from some far-off police car. A few students started laughing.
"Doesn't work. We should be playing Enya instead," one said.