'Amazing': Monarch butterflies return in huge numbers to California after almost vanishing last year

ByAma Daetz and Juan Carlos Guerrero via KGO logo
Tuesday, December 7, 2021
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After almost disappearing from overwintering sites in California last year, endangered monarch butterflies are back this year in huge numbers.

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. -- Something marvelous is happening this year along the California coast that has environmentalists grinning.

"We're excited," said Emma Pelton, conservation biologist with the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation.

Pelton is referring to the western monarch butterfly. After almost disappearing from overwintering sites along the California coast last year, the monarchs are back in a big way this year.

"What we're seeing this year is we're well over 100,000 butterflies and we're hoping it's going to continue to go up," said Pelton.

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The Xerces Society first began counting monarch butterflies in 1997. Back then they counted more than 1.2 million monarchs from Mendocino to Baja California.

But that number has steadily declined. In 2017 there were less than 200,000. Then it got worse, way worse.

Last year, less than 2,000 western monarchs were counted in over 200 overwintering sites.

At Pacific Grove, which once had nearly 50,000 butterflies, last year there were none.

"I was in tears," said Stephanie Turcotte Edenholm, educational docent for the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.

This year, Turcotte had tears again, but this time from the large number of monarchs that came to Monterey County.

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Turcotte leads school groups on tours of the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove. She's sort of a butterfly whisperer.

"I can hear the monarchs nectaring on all the beautiful plants. All the people are curious to see them. This habitat is so incredible," said Turcotte, who takes part in the annual count of monarchs in Pacific Grove.

Monarchs travel up to 100 miles a day from Idaho, Oregon, Washington and other areas west of the Rockies. They start arriving in California overwintering sites in October.

The count happens over several weeks around Thanksgiving.

"We come early in the morning when they are not able to fly. When it's under 55 degrees they're paralyzed in the trees," said Turcotte.

That lets them estimate the number of butterflies in their resting state.

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"They come to places like Pacific Grove where the conditions are just right. It's cool enough for them but it's not freezing. They have protection from the wind," said Liese Murphree, director of education and outreach at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.

She organizes the butterfly count in Monterey County.

"We were all really concerned about the butterflies. There was some concern that they had reached a critical low that their whole migration might disappear. That would have been catastrophic to lose all the Western butterflies. But this year, we're hopeful," said Murphree.

No one is quite sure why the monarchs come to this two-acre park in the middle of Pacific Grove. The area is surrounded by houses, hotels, and busy roads.

"While they're here, they're just trying to hang out. They're just trying to wait out the winter. They're following some kind of innate signal that brings them to this specific location. There's something special about this place," said Caleb Schneider, environmental program manager for the city of Pacific Grove.

"All the overwintering sites need help. All of them are being impacted," added Schneider.

The Xerces Society is working to add monarch butterflies to the endangered species list.

Efforts are underway to save them.

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Congress is considering the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act, which would provide millions of dollars to create new habitats for butterflies along the nation's freeways.

That would allow the massive planting of milkweed, which is used by butterflies to lay eggs.

Turcotte is glad the butterflies are back, but she's concerned the warmer temperatures in early December have them flying around too much.

"We need cool temperatures to keep the monarchs in their resting state. If the monarchs are using up all the fat reserves right now flying around enjoying all this beautiful weather, they might not survive through the winter," she explained.

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Another count will be undertaken in January to determine how many butterflies remain in overwintering sites.

The butterflies will then begin mating around Valentine's Day and then head east to lay eggs.

"If the butterflies aren't doing well then the bees aren't doing well and the moths and other pollinators aren't doing well. So the butterflies are beautiful. People want to protect them but we really need to protect all the pollinators," said Murphree.