Early hopeful signs from California's plan to bring back monarch butterflies

·6 min read

California is working on its own butterfly effect to bring back monarch butterflies.

Across the state, environmental and nature conservation organizations are teaming up to create and restore suitable habitats for the butterflies, which in the past would migrate by the tens of thousands to California ahead of winter.

The monarch butterfly population in the region had declined 99.9% from three decades ago; only about 1,900 were found in a survey over the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday along the California coast by the Xerces Society, a conservation group based in Portland, Oregon. More than 1.2 million monarch butterflies were reported in 1997, according to the group.

Western monarch butterflies, which come from the Pacific Northwest and west of the Rocky Mountains, spend the winter along the California coast. Eastern monarch butterflies, which typically remain east of the Rockies and head to Mexico for the winter, have seen population declines of about 80%, said Xerces Society executive director Scott Hoffman Black.

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So far this year, spotters in Western states have seen "a few more monarchs" than last year, Black said, referencing the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project.

For instance, spotters have seen more than 200 monarchs at Pismo Beach State Park, where last year's butterfly count during Thanksgiving found 199.

That is good news, he told USA TODAY, but "these are very early numbers, so we need to be cautious to not read too much into this. … but the numbers do lend some hope that we could see a slight rebound in Western population."

Rebuilding butterfly habitats

At Orville Schell Farms, owner Ole Schell wants to help revitalize the butterfly population by creating a monarch sanctuary on the property just north of San Francisco in Bolinas, California.

His monarch habitat revitalization plan, created with the help of the Xerces Society, includes planting more than 1,200 native nectar-producing flowers, shrubs and grasses. The 206-acre farm is used to grow apples, blueberries and other fruits and berries, which are sold to a local restaurant, Schell said.

With the help of veterans group Guardian Grange, Schell recently put down mulch and planted native flowering plants friendly to butterflies and other pollinator insects. They put up 8-foot fencing to keep deer out of butterfly habitat areas, because deer snack on the plants, he said.

Ole Schell working on the fence at Orville Schell Farms in Bolinas, California.
Ole Schell working on the fence at Orville Schell Farms in Bolinas, California.

A filmmaker whose father combatted corporate farming in the 1984 book, "Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones and the Pharmaceutical Farm," Schell remembered monarchs aplenty when he was boy on the free-range ranch and farm his father started in the 1970s.

In the eucalyptus groves, "you would shake a branch and thousands would come off of them," he said. "It was very dreamy and magical as a kid. ... Now, I don't see any monarchs, in fact, I may see one or two a year."

Housing expansion, drought and wildfires have depleted butterfly habitat, and pesticides and herbicides have brought the monarch butterfly to the brink of extinction. Climate change also is having an influence, scientists and conservationists say.

"Like all ecosystem collapse, the problem is not necessarily one thing, but many things over time which leads to destruction," said Mark Matzeldelaflor, founder of Guardian Grange, in an Instagram post describing work done over the Sept. 11 weekend. The group's work with Orville Schell Farms was recently chronicled by NBC News.

A former Navy SEAL, Matzeldelaflor founded Guardian Grange last year to help veterans reintegrate with society while working on projects aiming to protect natural resources. "Just being out and present in nature with other people I feel is a really powerful way of reconnecting and healing, and there's a lot of unspoken energy that transpires," he told USA TODAY.

Mark Matzeldelaflor, founder of Guardian Grange, working on the fence at Orville Schell Farms in Bolinas, California.
Mark Matzeldelaflor, founder of Guardian Grange, working on the fence at Orville Schell Farms in Bolinas, California.

Projects such as the monarch butterfly preserve help veterans regain energy and be productive, he said. "That's why I like the butterflies," Matzeldelaflor said. "I look at (it) like dropping a pebble in the pond … if that pebble is positive that makes positive ripples. I'm just focused on doing as much good work as possible with other people."

Monarch butterfly: endangered, but not officially

Supporters had hoped the monarch would be declared a threatened or endangered species last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the service said the butterfly had to wait its turn because higher-priority species already were in line for consideration to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Official protection would require a national recovery plan for the butterfly.

Legislation could yield funding for projects to boost butterfly protection. The Xerces Society is supporting the Monarch Act of 2021, already introduced in both houses of Congress, to provide $25 million over the next five years to foster monarch habitats. And within the Biden administration's proposed infrastructure bill, there's a separate Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act of 2021, which provides $2 million a year for the Transportation Department to encourage the growth of pollinator plants along highways.

Meanwhile, a statewide Wildlife Conservation Board initiative this year planted more than 30,000 milkweed plants from north of Sacramento to south of San Diego. The plants serve as a habitat for butterfly eggs and food for monarch caterpillars, and they provide natural toxins that make caterpillars and butterflies less palatable to birds and other predators.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and other groups planted milkweed along the Sacramento, Feather and Kern rivers, The San Francisco Chronicle reported in May. “There couldn’t be a more critical time to be doing this,” restoration biologist Francis Ulep of ecology and conservation group River Partners told the Chronicle.

Milkweed plants are the only place female monarch butterflies will lay eggs; the caterpillars feed on the plant. The butterflies live from two weeks to five weeks, so several generations arrive during the spring and summer. But the butterflies instinctively know their migratory mission.

At Orville Schell Farms, owner Ole Schell wants to help revitalize the butterfly population by creating a monarch sanctuary on the property just north of San Francisco in Bolinas, California.
At Orville Schell Farms, owner Ole Schell wants to help revitalize the butterfly population by creating a monarch sanctuary on the property just north of San Francisco in Bolinas, California.

Schell hopes a network emerges of those interested in supporting the butterfly's resurgence. Typical homeowners and landowners can contribute, too, by adding appropriate plants to their gardens, he said.

"It's not a magical process. Anybody willing to do the work can do it," said Schell, who added that many had reached out to him recently wondering how they could help.

His advice: Check with local nurseries that offer native plants. "You can get a few plants as long as you do it right, and you will see results." "People have said, 'I have a few plants I put in there and I've seen the caterpillars and the butterflies return.' So, it's very satisfying."

Those who cannot plant monarch-friendly flora can contribute to the sanctuary at the West Marin Monarch Sanctuary website.

Schell is currently on the lookout soon for monarchs. "They overwinter here or they traditionally had in my boyhood," he said. "Let's hope if you build it, they will come."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Monarch butterflies: California migration begins, hope for big numbers