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Western Monarch Butterfly Recovery Causes Hope, Despite Storm Threat

For the second consecutive year, the monarch butterfly population has increased.


Before coastal rains, California volunteers participated in the 26th Western Monarch Count from November 12 to December 4, 2022. The count was held by the Xerces Society, a nonprofit group that works to protect monarch butterflies. Over the course of two months, more than 250 volunteers went to 272 sites in coastal California, inland California, and Arizona to count butterfly clusters.


Final numbers show a continued rise from the previous year, with 335,479 butterflies counted. The year before, volunteers counted about 250,000 butterflies. The year prior, their count showed fewer than 2,000, raising concerns of potential extinction. "A second year in a row with relatively decent numbers gives us hope that there is still time to act to conserve the western migration," said Emma Pelton, a conservation biologist at the Xerces Society and western monarch lead, in an announcement on January 31.


While there are approximately 100,000 more monarch butterflies in California right now than there were during last year's annual migration, their population is down by 80% over the past 30 years. This year’s count is still a far cry from the low millions of butterflies recorded in the 1980s.


Monarchs are the only kind of butterfly that undertake a two-way migration. This back-and-forth movement is similar to the way some birds change their migration patterns with the seasons. Because the winged critters can’t endure cold weather, they ride thermals and air currents to fly up to 3,000 miles to warmer climates.


This winter’s storms may affect their population. Since their arrival, the monarchs have been through a lot: storms, floods, falling trees, and cold spells. According to the Xerces Society, this winter season has been particularly harsh, with several challenges including climate change contributing to it. Another count planned for March will likely show lower results than the annual Thanksgiving count, which was conducted before the storms. “I do think we’re going to have seen probably higher-than-usual mortality this winter, because of the severity of these storms,” Pelton said.


According to the Xerces Society, "the main causes of decline are the loss of overwintering, breeding, and migratory habitat in California and the use of pesticides." The U.S. Department of the Interior also points to drought, extreme temperature changes, and stronger, more frequent storms.


After the alarming counts in 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature put the species on its list of endangered species in 2021. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't given the butterflies the same designation, making them ineligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to list the species in 2024, it may be too late to prevent its potential extinction. Isis Howard, who is in charge of Xerces' butterfly count, warns that extinction won't wait until the federal government catches up.


Last year's recovery received a lot of attention, and in the months since, there have been signs of progress. In July, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior announced $1 million in grants for Western monarch protection. Also, the disappearance of the monarch butterfly and other pollinators in recent years led Congress to commit $10 million to pollinator conservation. Meanwhile, the state of California proposed restrictions on a class of insecticides that are harmful to pollinators like monarchs, and the state's Supreme Court created a loophole that lets insects be protected under the California Endangered Species Act.



"Monarchs are inherently valuable and culturally significant to many peoples in North America. We don’t want to lose this incredible phenomenon on our watch," stated Howard. According to Howard, the species and its habitat require a greater degree of protection. Every year, overwintering habitats suffer destruction or degradation. "If we lose places for western monarchs to spend the winter in California, we could lose them," Howard said. Howard also said that land development, eucalyptus habitats, and tree cutting must be better managed to preserve the monarch butterfly.

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