US storms pose danger to endangered monarch butterflies

CALIFORNIA (AFP): During the destructive storms that hit California, conservationists were worried about the endangered monarch butterflies that had arrived there for winter as part of their miraculous migration journey.

The colorfully winged insects that travel vast distances throughout generations have been closely watched in the U.S. since they neared extinction just three years ago.

As the sun rose one January morning, volunteers began counting monarch butterflies, finding them clustered atop cypress and eucalyptus trees in various sites along the California coast.

The butterflies huddled in clusters of gray colonies until one spread its wings to reveal the orange spots for which they were known.

The sight provided a bit of reassurance for Stephanie Turcotte Edenholm, who counted more than a thousand monarchs at a sanctuary in the California coastal town of Pacific Grove.

Monarch butterflies are seen as they overwinter in a protected area inside Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, U.S., Jan. 26, 2023. (AFP Photo)

Stephanie Turcotte Edenholm, educator and naturalist, uses leaves and bark to pick up an injured Monarch at the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California, U.S., Jan. 26, 2023. (AFP Photo)

The educator spent much of the morning explaining the lives of the butterflies to young school students. They watched as dozens of butterflies took flight, believing – mistakenly – that the mild temperature signaled the end of winter.

“It’s too early for them to get so agitated; they’re using up their fat reserves,” Edenholm fretted.

She worried that they would mate and the females would fly off in search of milkweed plants to lay eggs on. Milkweed is all that baby caterpillars eat once the eggs hatch, but it was too early in winter for the plants to grow.

According to the Xerces Society conservation group, volunteers counted more than 330,000 “western monarch” butterflies at the end of November.

That number came as a relief compared to the 2,000 butterflies counted at the end of 2020 and an encouraging step up from the 250,000 or so butterflies tallied in 2021.

But the ranks of butterflies were far from the millions observed in the 1980s, due to threats including habitat loss, pesticides and climate change, according to Xerces.

The monarch was added last year to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species, and Xerces has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place monarchs on its endangered list.

Such a designation would help monarch defenders fight real estate developers out to raze trees or build on terrain needed by migrating butterflies.

According to Xerces biologist Emma Pelton, the question of whether to protect monarchs is a philosophical one since the insects are known more for incredible migrations than being crucial for pollinating crops or flowers.

“We wouldn’t lose human crops or wild plants in particular if the monarchs disappeared,” Pelton said.

But the world would lose butterflies “that perform an incredible migration, and that people are attached to, emotionally and culturally, throughout North America.”

Some species of monarchs travel thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico, while the lifespan of any single butterfly is typically measured in weeks.

Monarch butterflies are seen in the trees as they overwinter in and around the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California, U.S., Jan. 26, 2023. (AFP Photo)

A Monarch butterfly is seen as they overwinter in a protected area inside Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, U.S., Jan. 26, 2023. (AFP Photo)

Magical journey

Bill Henry remembers a childhood here filled with butterflies.

“It was kind of a magical thing to be immersed in the abundance of the natural world,” said Henry, now director of Groundswell Coastal Ecology group in Santa Cruz, not far from Pacific Grove.

“It paints a picture; it’s something that dreams are made out of.”

Henry said that flourishing monarchs are also a sign of enough milkweed and habitat along the long migration corridor.

“Milkweed is linked to healthy landscapes, and it’s linked to healthy floodplains, which means that our rivers are doing well,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“It also means that there aren’t a lot of impasses to their migration, such as swaths where the pesticides that kill them are being used.”

In 2020, the near absence of monarchs on the west Coast was a rallying cry for nature lovers, from gardeners who planted milkweed to hobbyists who raised butterflies in their homes despite the illegal practice.

But finding the right balance to protect nature has challenges. For example, monarchs love water-guzzling eucalyptus trees that are not native to drought-prone California.

Clearing vegetation or trees to reduce the risk of wildfires can eliminate butterfly habitats.

Monarchs being gone from our world would “suck too much,” said Santa Cruz teenager Brody Robbins, who skipped school to photograph butterflies “way cooler than Civil War classes.”