ABC7 Salutes

Neighbors work to save endangered butterfly

Friday, July 17, 2009

Some of San Francisco's tiniest residents are getting some help from some of their bigger neighbors. The Green Hairstreak butterfly used to flit all across the city, but it is now hanging on in just a couple locations.

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Liam O'Brien wanders the rocky outcrop in Golden Gate Heights on a gray June day looking for something that would be hard to miss. The Green Hairstreak butterfly is as colorful as its name.

A couple dozen of them were spotted in May, but now they won't likely be seen again until next spring.

"It's as good as having a panda wandering around in the neighborhood," says O'Brien. "It's a stunningly beautiful butterfly."

O'Brien is a lepidopterist, or simply put, a butterfly watcher who has taken his hobby to new heights. He is leading an ambitious plan to save the Green Hairstreak.

"We're actually more famous as San Franciscans amongst the lepidopterists for what is gone than for really what remains," he says.

The Blue Xerces butterfly disappeared from San Francisco in the 1940s as development of the Sunset District overtook its habitat. O'Brien wants to save the Green Hairstreak from the same fate.

"It's a strong hill-topping butterfly. That's a phenomenon not all butterflies have, but what it means is wherever the butterflies are born, the species, the male and females, will go to the nearest hilltop to find each other," says O'Brien.

Once found all across San Francisco, the Hairstreaks are now in only three locations -- the Presidio Bluffs and two hilltops in Golden Gate Heights, Rocky Outcrop and Hawk Hill four blocks away.

The problem is, those two populations are isolated from each other. The females need certain native plants on which to lay her eggs, and those native plants are mostly gone, replaced with invasive ones like ice-plant.

"We're trying to connect these two disjunct populations because if some girls from here can meet some boys from there... I know it sounds slightly naive, but it's not really because the other coup de gras for isolated lycenid populations is inbreeding," says O'Brien.

O'Brien took his idea to Peter Brastow, founder of the conservancy group Nature in the City. Brastow then helped enlist the help of the neighborhood.

"It's basically an easy and a local, concrete manifestation of what we're trying to do across the entire city, which is to connect people to nature right where they live and to plant native plants for habitat and what not, and here's Liam with a perfect idea," says Brastow.

Volunteers in the neighborhood agreed to weed and plant small strips of land with the blessing of the city's Department of Public Works. Neighbor Mike Belcher rips out invasive plants and puts Hairstreak hosts on a strip. When not fighting fires he loves gardening and butterflies.

"A friend of mine, another firefighter in the city, called me and he said, 'You're a butterfly guy, aren't you?' and I thought, 'Well, I guess you could say that,'" says Belcher.

Barbara Kobayashi is responsible for another area where hopefully the female Hairstreaks will be hopscotching in between hilltops in the spring.

"I love the city, I love nature and I wanted to be part of bringing the Hairstreak butterfly back to our neighborhood," she says.

"I want to be part of a group of people that try," says O'Brien. "I just want to try, I'm not sure it's going to work, but instead of just sitting back and checking off yet another butterfly out of San Francisco."

ABC7 salutes Liam O'Brien and the Green Hairstreak butterfly volunteers for their unflappable work.

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