ENVIRONS

SAVING THE MONARCH

By Sara Hall | Contributor

FALL 2022 ISSUE

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Photos courtesy of Laura Ford and Roger's Gardens

The monarch, arguably America’s most beloved butterfly, is in trouble.

A spotlight has recently shined on the imperiled pollinators after an international conservation organization placed the iconic insect on its endangered list following decades of declining population numbers. Locally, groups and businesses have campaigned to help bring the migrating monarch back to the California coast.

A Laguna Beach-based nonprofit, the Pollinator Protection Fund (PPF), is dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of monarch butterflies, as well as the preservation and creation of pollinator habitats in Southern California. The organization’s aim is to educate through interpretive signage, community outreach talks, gardening days and volunteer work, says PPF founder and managing director Laura Ford.

“We create beautiful pollinator habitats to enrich the environment for both people and pollinators,” she says. “Our work is vital in creating pesticide-free, safe habitats for pollinators to live, feed and reproduce.”

The monarch butterfly population, particularly those in the western half of the United States, is in trouble, said Ron Vanderhoff, general manager and vice president of Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar.

“An insect so common just 30 years ago is now a fraction of its former abundance,” he says. 

 

At Risk of Extinction

In the 1980s, the California population of monarch butterflies was estimated at 4.5 million. By 1997, numbers had declined to about 1.2 million, before dropping to fewer than 30,000 in 2019, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). During the winter of 2020-21, volunteers counted fewer than 2,000 adult monarchs in the entire state. 

Orange County once had several thousand monarch butterflies roosting along the coast, from Seal Beach to San Clemente, says Ron, who assists with the annual fall and winter monarch census in the region.

In 1997, there were more than 4,300 monarchs counted in Orange County. In the winter of 2020-21, at the county’s 17 historical wintering sites, volunteers counted just one adult monarch. 

“It’s serious; monarchs need help,” Ron says.

Pollinators in general have seen a steep decline in recent years due to modern agricultural practices such as the overuse of pesticides and use of neonicotinoids, removal of habitat and monarch butterfly overwintering habitats, and lack of native milkweeds foodplants. 

“The cause of this incredible decline in monarch numbers is not from one factor, and no single solution exists,” Ron explains. “It’s complicated, and most experts list a mixture of causes.”

Some positive recent news, however, gives hope to the struggling population. 

In 2021, the Xerces Society, which focuses on the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats, reported a surprising 247,237 monarch butterflies observed across western overwintering sites. These numbers signal the possibility of a rebound — however, the population is still drastically lower than the millions migrating just a few decades ago, and it remains in serious peril.

This summer, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the migratory western monarch population endangered. Although a significant step, the July 21 announcement doesn’t have any policy or regulations impact for conservation in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds that power, and it has not listed the monarch butterfly as an endangered species.

“The IUCN declaration is terrific, but unfortunately it has been a bit misrepresented in the media. In the U.S., a species is not endangered until Fish and Wildlife says so,” Ron says. “The IUCN is a well-respected international, science-based, conservation organization. However, with no regulatory power, it has limited influence in the United States.” 

The FWS declaring them endangered is the action that the monarch conservation community is really waiting for, he notes. In 2020, FWS found that adding the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species was “warranted but precluded” by work on higher-priority listing actions. With this decision, the monarch becomes a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and its status will be reviewed each year until it is no longer a candidate. 

“Until the Fish and Wildlife Service adds it to the U.S. Endangered Species List, we are still without the full set of tools and the resources needed to conserve this iconic creature,” Ron says. “When this happens, monies will become available, regulations will begin and the real conservation will get underway to save this species.” 

The FWS declaring them endangered is the action that the monarch conservation community is really waiting for, he notes. In 2020, FWS found that adding the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species was “warranted but precluded” by work on higher-priority listing actions. With this decision, the monarch becomes a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and its status will be reviewed each year until it is no longer a candidate. 

“Until the Fish and Wildlife Service adds it to the U.S. Endangered Species List, we are still without the full set of tools and the resources needed to conserve this iconic creature,” Ron says. “When this happens, monies will become available, regulations will begin and the real conservation will get underway to save this species.” 

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A Species Worth Saving

Monarch butterflies are worthy of our protection for more than just their iconic beauty, Laura notes. 

Consider their amazing migration: They migrate from all over the United States and southern Canada to their winter grounds in Mexico and coastal California, Laura explains. Western monarchs gather to roost in eucalyptus, Monterey cypress, Monterey pine and other trees in groves along the pacific coastline, arriving around late October. 

“Their tiny bodies, which weigh less than a paperclip, fly thousands of miles — across multiple generations — to make their final destinations,” Laura says. “The western population of monarch butterflies that visit us in Southern California travel huge distances, defying all manner of obstacles and dangers.”

During this great migration, monarchs are powerful pollinators. 

Pollinators, which also include bees, birds, bats and beetles, are vital to the production of one-third of all agricultural output in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We rely on these winged beauties for goods ranging from food and fibers to edible oils and medicines. They also support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.

“The pollinator population of an area is a great indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem,” Laura says. “It’s vital that we protect pollinators if we wish to live on a planet that continues to sustain us and is hospitable to life.” 

What’s more, some of the same sound conservation and environmental decisions that will help monarchs will benefit many other wild creatures as well, Ron adds. 

“Habitat must be restored, expanded and preserved, foodplants must be protected, planted and encouraged, pesticides must be reduced, and commercial agricultural practices must be altered,” he explains. “Healthy habitats are critical.”

 

Conservation at Home

“Unlike most species that might be in peril, the monarch is in our own backyards (or at least should be),” Ron says. “This isn’t about some animal that we seldom ever see that lives in a mountain canyon or some area far away. … Our actions in our own gardens can either help monarch recovery — or not.”

Planting California native milkweed in your backyard is a great step home gardeners can take to save the species. Monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs, and their caterpillars also feed exclusively on the leaves. 

Laura suggests placing it apart from other plants or surrounding it with a mulch circle to make it easy for the monarchs to find. By placing rocks or flat stones nearby to absorb the sun’s heat, you can also create a resting space for monarchs. A small pan or dish filled with coarse sand and dampened with water will act as a drinking and mineral source.

“In particular, add some locally native milkweed to your garden and remove any bright orange tropical milkweed,” Ron adds. “Then, add nectar-producing plants to your garden, especially those that flower in the winter, while monarchs are resting locally.”

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The more generic tropical milkweed is not native to the United States but is commonly found in commercial garden shops. While this lush foliage attracts monarchs, there is a debilitating parasite that can live in abundance on tropical milkweed. Unless the plant is significantly cut back after the leaves have been eaten by the caterpillars, a build-up of the parasite can deform and even kill monarchs.  

Gardeners who remove tropical milkweed from their backyard can bring it to Roger’s Gardens to receive one native, narrow-leaf milkweed plant for free. Also at Roger’s Gardens, fans of the fluttering insect can show support for the research and education needed to help recover monarch butterflies by donating $5 to write a wish on a wooden monarch and hang it on the “wishing tree.” The local shop has already raised more than $5,000 toward its $7,000 goal, which will be donated to the Xerces Society.

But first and foremost, nature lovers who want to protect butterflies should learn more about their plight. 

“The first thing to do — the easiest thing to do — is to notice and think about monarch butterflies and other pollinators,” Laura says. “Awareness and appreciation … [are] a good start.”

Carefully research through science-based websites, Ron suggests, and then talk about the issue and share what you’ve learned with others. Lobby for good ecological and conservation practices in general.  

It’s not enough to just preach, “save the monarchs,” he adds. “We need to act intelligently and in a scientifically appropriate manner.” 

 

For more information, visit

PROTECTMONARCHS.COM,

ROGERSGARDENS.COM/PAGES/MILKWEEDS-FOR-MONARCHS, and 

XERCES.ORG.