Last December the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation released preliminary figures. Now they've announced the final tally: almost 272,000 monarchs (Danaus plexippus).
The good news is that it's a little up from last year. Yes! But the not-so-good news is that the total is 39 percent lower than the long-term average.
The Xerces Society has sponsored and spearheaded the count since 1997. The project spans 16 counties along the California coast. It's called the “Thanksgiving Count” but it's a three-week project centered around the holiday. Who surveys them? Volunteers. It's a massive and important endeavor.
"Results from a survey of monarch butterfly overwintering sites in California show that there are more monarchs overwintering in the state this year than last," wrote Sarina Jepsen, director of Xerces Endangered Species Program, and Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces executive director, on their website. "Volunteers with the Xerces Society's Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count visited 187 sites and tallied a total of 271,924 monarchs. Although more monarchs were counted, the average number of monarchs per site is not significantly different than last year's count, and this year's population estimate represents a 39% decline from the long term average. The number of monarchs counted this year is but a fraction of the 1.2 million monarchs recorded in the late 90s."
They noted some promising data. "Fifteen sites that have been continuously monitored had the highest numbers of butterflies in a decade. Several sites that had not seen monarchs for years were occupied, and there were a number of sites, such as the Berkeley Aquatic Park, that hosted overwintering monarchs for the first time. In Marin County in the northern extent of the overwintering range, 11 sites had increased numbers and two new sites each supported more than 8,000 butterflies."
Unfortunately, the sites surveyed in southern California showed fewer monarchs than last year.
Xerces is working feverishly to save the monarchs and is encouraging others to do so, too. “The monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels,” Xerces wrote on their website. “In the 1990s, estimates of up to one billion monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 56.5 million monarchs remain, representing a decline of more than 80% from the 21 year average across North America.”
Personally, we were delighted to see monarchs overwintering in the Berkeley Aquatic Park and the gathering--though sparse--near St. Peter's Chapel on the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, Solano County. Monarchs used to overwinter in the eucalyptus trees near the Solano County Juvenile Hall, Fairfield, but someone felled the trees.
Meanwhile, what can we do to conserve the monarchs? Xerces lists these excellent points:
- Plant native milkweed and nectar plants. Find sources of local, native milkweed seed in your state using our Milkweed Seed Finder.
- Learn more about growing milkweeds on our Project Milkweed page.
- Avoid using insecticides and herbicides.
- Support agriculture that is organic or free of Genetically Modified ingredients.
- Become a citizen scientist and contribute to research efforts to track the monarch population in its breeding and overwintering range.
- Support the Xerces Society's monarch conservation efforts
Another thing we can do is become "Monarch Moms" and "Monarch Dads." Rear them for conservation purposes. Then release them and watch them soar. It's a feeling like no other. If you look on Facebook, you can network with the Monarch Moms and Monarch Dads out there.
The Beautiful Monarch
Public group administered by Holli Webb Hearn
"The Beautiful Monarch group was created to teach members how to raise and properly care for the monarch butterfly from egg to flying adult along with learning about their predators, diseases and other monarch facts. It is my hope that as a collective group we will help and teach one another along with any new members that join us."
Raising Butterflies and Moths for Conservation (+All Pollinators)
Closed group monitored by Mona L. Miller (apply to join)
"Our focus is the preservation and protection of North American butterflies, moths and pollinators, particularly the Monarch Butterfly."
There's even a Monarch Teacher Network. (Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies)
Is the overwintering monarch butterfly population along California's coast increasing or decreasing?
"So far, far the picture is rather mixed for the number of monarchs in California," according to Matthew Shepherd, communications director for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "More than 130 sites have been surveyed," he told us today. "Northern sites have more butterflies that last year, other sites fewer, and there are many southern sites that haven't yet reported data. A full analysis will be available in January."
The western monarchs, that is those that west of the Rockies, migrate to the California coast to overwinter while the eastern monarchs head to the mountains of central Mexico.
In a news release issued today from its headquarters in Portland, Ore., the Xerces Society said that early data from its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count suggests "a small increase in butterfly numbers in some parts of the overwintering range."
That is, 2015 may have "been a better year for the beleaguered monarch butterfly in the western United States."
"The overall population size is still far lower than it was in the 1990s, when more than one million butterflies were counted," the news release said. "The surveys indicate that sites north of Santa Cruz are hosting more butterflies than previous years, whereas sites in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties are reporting fewer numbers of butterflies on average. Several new sites have been reported, including some from Marin County with up to 10,000 monarchs. The data is not yet available for Santa Cruz County and southern California."
The Xerces Society launched its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count in 1997. This year some 85 volunteers surveyed more than 130 sites over a three-week period centered around Thanksgiving.
We'll all have to wait until January to see the final tallies.
Meanwhile, we were happy to see monarchs roosting in November in the Berkeley Aquatic Park (for the first year ever) and on Mare Island, Vallejo, (maybe also first?) but those clusters may be temporary. As butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, says--they may move on as soon as the weather turns foul.
Maybe they're on their way to Santa Cruz?
"There are some sites where monarchs gather in fall, almost like staging posts in preparation for moving to overwintering locations," Shepherd told us.
Where can you observe the overwintering monarchs in California? The Xerces Society has kindly provided a web page with links to overerwintering sites in Alameda, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
And that it is. It's designed to alert people to a problem that needs fixing.
And that's good news for the monarch butterflies.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has just signed Assembly Bill 559, which gives authority to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to take actions to conserve monarch butterflies and their habit in California.
“In recent years California has seen a drastic decrease in the Monarch Butterfly population partly due to climate change," said Assemblywoman Patty López (D-San Fernando), author of the bill.
"Conserving this butterfly will have positive impacts on the environment and overall economy for tourism to continue to flourish in cities that the butterfly migrates to,” she said in a news release. "For decades these majestic creatures have called our state home and are an inspiring symbol to many of our communities because of its yearly migration.”
López noted--and correctly so--that monarch butterflies "have been on the verge of being endangered" in their natural habitat (the caterpillars feed only on milkweed) and that their food source has "slowly diminished in the state due to climate change and the use of herbicide among other factors."
The federal government, she said, "committed to conserve the butterfly by expanding public-private partnerships with state and local governments."
The bill is a big step toward California's commitment.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, headquartered in Portland, Ore., helped develop the bill. "The significant thing about this bill is that it clarifies that the California state agency charged with wildlife conservation should, in fact, be working on the conservation of monarch butterflies," said Xerces communication director Matthew Shepherd. "This may not seem a big step, but until now, because of the way that the California state endangered species act was written with respect to invertebrates, it has been unclear whether or not California Department of Fish and Wildlife actually had the authority to work on monarchs. Now they, which allows the department to invest resources and staff time on monarch conservation."
Indeed, saving the monarchs begins with you and me. Get free milkweed seeds (Google "free milkweed seeds" or plant milkweeds obtained from local nurseries.
And why not forgo or cut back on Halloween candy and instead hand out milkweed seeds to the trick or treaters?
Now that's a real treat for monarchs!
The western migration of the Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) to their overwintering sites along the California coast is underway.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, recorded four Monarchs at his Suisun monitoring site yesterday. He's been monitoring butterflies in Central California for some four decades.
This morning, a male Monarch fluttered into our yard to sip some nectar from a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). (A distinguishing feature of the male Monarch: a small black spot on each of its two hindwings. See photo below.)
Monarchs head for sites along the coast, including Santa Cruz, Monterey, Natural Bridges and Pacific Grove, to overwinter, Shapiro noted.
"There used to be a small site in Fairfield, near the old Juvenile Hall on West Texas Street, in a row of Eucalyptus. It's been gone for decades. Some years they try to overwinter in Marin and Sonoma counties, but usually give up and shift south in December. In the past few years there has been a little winter breeding on the south coast. This was never recorded before."
The migration of the Monarchs to overwintering sites in central Mexico is well-publicized, but some monarchs head for the California coast. According to the monarchwatch.org website, monarchs east of the continental divide generally migrate to central Mexico from as far away as Ontario, Canada. "Monarchs west of the divide fly to the coast of California to spend the winter. They cluster together on tree limbs during the winter months in California by the thousands, and in central Mexico by the millions." (Download the PDF on the monarchwatch.org site.)
We're glad to see the huge national campaign to plant milkweed, the host plant of the Monarchs. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has posted a wealth of information on its website for us to take action. The Monarch population has declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years.
“Monarch butterflies are declining due to loss of habitat,” said Monarch Watch director Chip Taylor. “To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds needs to become a national priority.”
It also helps to provide nectar resources for the Monarchs to help them along in their migration. In our yard, they like the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and blue beard (Caryopteris × clandonensis). See list of Monarchs' favorite plants on the monarchwatch.org site.
Meanwhile, an occasional Monarch flutters into our family bee/butterfly garden to sip some nectar. Sometimes territorial native bees chase them away but the Monarchs return, determined to grab some flight fuel.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation issued news today that is both disturbing and hopeful.
Disturbing in that the monarch butterfly population (Danaus plexippus) has declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years.
Hopeful in that the monarch may receive federal protection through the Endangered Species Act.
The Xerces Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, and monarch scientist Lincoln Brower, have filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the monarch through the Endangered Species Act. The agency must respond within 30 days as to whether the petition warrants further review.
“Monarchs are in a deadly free fall and the threats they face are now so large in scale that Endangered Species Act protection is needed sooner rather than later, while there is still time to reverse the severe decline in the heart of their range,” related Lincoln Brower, preeminent monarch researcher and conservationist, who has been studying the species since 1954.
Tragicallly, the monarchs have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat, including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds that contain their host plant, milkweed. The female monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and this is the only food their larvae eat.
As Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, told us today: "Might be too little too late but they have to preserve/conserve milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) That's more important than the butterfly itself."
Xerces earlier sounded the alarm on the critical role that milkweeds play in the monarch's life cycle.
Senior scientist Tierra Curry of the Center for Biological Diversity, hammered home this point in the news release: “The 90 percent drop in the monarch's population is a loss so staggering that in human-population terms it would be like losing every living person in the United States except those in Florida and Ohio.”
And the loss of habitat is equal in size to the state of Texas.
The news release said that the butterfly's dramatic decline is "being driven by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs are born. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, a uniquely potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar's only food. The dramatic surge in Roundup use with Roundup Ready crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in midwestern corn and soybean fields."
Science policy analyst Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety was quoted as saying: "The widespread decline of monarchs is driven by the massive spraying of herbicides on genetically engineered crops, which has virtually eliminated monarch habitat in cropland that dominates the Midwest landscape. Doing what is needed to protect monarchs will also benefit pollinators and other valuable insects, and thus safeguard our food supply.”
Monarch butterflies are known for their spectacular multigenerational migration each year from Mexico to Canada and back, the news release said.
"The population has declined from a recorded high of approximately 1 billion butterflies in the mid-1990s to only 35 million butterflies last winter, the lowest number ever recorded," according to the release. "The overall population shows a steep and statistically significant decline of 90 percent over 20 years. In addition to herbicide use with genetically engineered crops, monarchs are also threatened by global climate change, drought and heat waves, other pesticides, urban sprawl, and logging on their Mexican wintering grounds. Scientists have predicted that the monarch's entire winter range in Mexico and large parts of its summer range in the states could become unsuitable due to changing temperatures and increased risk of drought, heat waves and severe storms."
Endangered species director Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society worries--and rightfully so--that the monarch may become extinct, just like the passenger pigeon.
We are, too. We've seen only two--two--of these majestic butterflies fluttering in our family bee garden this year.