Mission Blue Butterfly: An Endangered Species Fighting for Survival

This is the Natural Laboratory, a podcast exploring science for Bay Area

National Parks. I'm Daniel Strain.

I'm talking with Liam O'Brien in his San Francisco home. O'Brien is a Bay Area

renaissance man. He's a professional actor

and a butterfly researcher. He also paints.

This is a piece that's coming up in Bay Nature magazine

In his illustration, a bright blue butterfly flutters over a coastal

grassland dotted with wildflowers.

It's a mission blue butterfly

a favorite among bay area artists.

Despite its popularity this insect is rare.

Rapid bay area development in the twentieth century drove it close to


In nineteen seventy-six it was one of the first insects to gain endangered

status under the federal Endangered Species Act.

When he's not painting O'Brien works to protect at-risk butterflies like these.

His first goal is communicating to would be naturalists that mission blues are

more than just a pretty face.

[Liam O'Brien] We all are attracted as humans to the pretty adult phase

but i'd try to pound home that the butterfly is present for the rest of the

year, it's just in three other phases.

[Daniel Strain] It's winter on the scraggly bluffs that make up the Marin Headlands in Golden Gate

National Recreation Area.

I can't see a single butterfly.

They're there O'Brien says, I just need to look under my feet.

For nine months out of the year these insects sleep in the dark under layers

of dried leaves.

They're waiting for three species of lupine, a silvery shrub, to start growing again.

[Liam O'Brien] And then when the rains the spring begin again, February, March, they literally wake up.

They crawl back up onto the new lupine.

[Daniel Strain] mission blue butterflies depend on lupine plants for everything from food to shelter.

It's this dependence that makes these insects so important says Christina Crooker.

She's a restoration manager with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

[Christina Crooker] Since the butterflies depend on the lupines which depend on the grasslands

they can serve as a sort of an indicator species for grassland health.

[Daniel Strain] In other words what hurts coastal grasslands also hurts mission blues and

vice versa.

Coastal prairies like this hillside in the Marin Headlands

once covered much of Marin County California and the San Francisco

peninsula to the south.

Today they occupy just a few small patches.

[Christina Crooker] And a lot of that is because

they occur in areas

that are just prime for development.

They like to live where we like to live.

[Daniel Strain] But in Golden Gate lands Crooker is one of many people working to revive these

unique habitats.

She protects the communities already flourishing here

and sews more native coastal shrubs and grasses.

New and healthier habitats bring more butterflies she says,

and in the mid nineties they were doing just that.

Mission blue numbers seemed to be on the rise.

[Christina Crooker] And then in nineteen ninety-eight

something happened that really negatively affected the butterfly populations.

What happened was a fungal pathogen swept through the lupine host plants.

[Daniel Strain] The lupine blight scattered the butterflies to small isolated islands of grassland.

But, Crooker says,

their numbers seem to be growing again.

[Christina Crooker] So it's a very positive and a very hopeful trend.

[Daniel Strain] Still, the mission blue success is tenuous

in two thousand and ten, the lupine pathogen re-emerged in the Golden Gate

and butterfly numbers again dropped.

Invasive species are a big threat too.

Exotic weeds like french broom and pampas grass push aside the native

plants that butterflies depend on. To stop the spread of these unwanted guests

Crooker encourages Bay Area gardeners to grow only non invasive plants.

Community members can help in other ways too, she says.

[Christina Crooker] Another thing that people can do, and

this is a really positive experience all around, is to come out and help volunteer.

[Daniel Strain] Volunteers can help pull weeds or even get their hands dirty in the Park Service's

Native Plant Nurseries.

These programs don't just help butterflies

but a wide community of animals from garter snakes

to bumblebees.

According to Liam O'Brien,

the best way to appreciate this community

is to get out and see it first hand.

[Liam O'Brien] For people to take their kids and to walk

or to sit and paint and draw a butterfly or something like that

Who's to say who the next great conservationist is going to be.

[Daniel Strain] But if butterflies are your thing, you might want to wait until spring.

For more information on yow you can protect the mission blue butterfly

Check out the Bay Area parks resource page


For the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center, I'm Daniel Strain.