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Pismo Beach butterfly grove sees 3,500% increase in monarch count. 'We're thrilled'

San Luis Obispo Tribune logo San Luis Obispo Tribune 10/22/2021 Mackenzie Shuman, The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

Oct. 22—California State Parks interpreter Danielle Bronson was practically jumping with joy as she pointed out the thousands of butterflies weighing down branches in the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove on Thursday afternoon.

Tourists visiting the grove off Highway 1 craned their necks to spot the orange-and-black winged insects among the eucalyptus trees.

Early counts of the western monarch butterflies overwintering in the southern San Luis Obispo County grove show a 3,500% increase in numbers compared to the previous winter — and experts say they're "cautiously optimistic" that the species may be edging away from extinction.

"This is a super exciting time because they're still showing up," said Emma Pelton, senior conservation biologist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "So we expect, overall, the numbers are going to keep going up."

During the 2020 annual western monarch butterfly count, which is organized by the Xerces Society and held in mid-November to early December, volunteers counted only 200 butterflies in the Pismo Beach grove.

Pelton at the time said "we might be witnessing the collapse of the species."

In 2019, the Pismo Beach grove had more than 6,700 monarchs — 23% of the western monarch population that year — and just six years ago, volunteers counted about 28,000 butterflies at the site, according to the Xerces Society.

In 1997, there were about 100,000 monarch butterflies counted at the Pismo Beach grove.

As of Oct. 20, there were 7,199 monarchs in the Pismo Beach grove, according to Bronson.

"We're thrilled and super optimistic," Bronson said.

Pelton said that high counts of butterflies in Pismo Beach and other groves across California early in the season show "definitely, there's hope."

So far, Pelton said there have been about 10,000 monarchs counted statewide — up from 2,000 counted last winter.

It's hard to tell what caused the jump in numbers this year, she said.

"Last year, when numbers were so low, I think some people kind of gave up and asked 'What's the point? They're gone,' " she said. "The better numbers this year are a good counterweight to that, and I think make us double down on our conservation efforts because we see there's some wiggle room and we can still perhaps save them."

Efforts to federally protect monarch butterflies fall short

Monarch butterflies are among the candidates for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. The species was denied federal protection in 2020.

Adding monarch butterflies to the list of threatened and endangered species was "warranted but precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in a December news release regarding the decision.

Two bills that would set aside millions in funding for the butterflies — the Monarch Action, Recovery and Conservation of Habitat, or, MONARCH Act, and the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act — were reintroduced by U.S. Rep Salud Carbajal (D-24), U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-20) and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) to the U.S. House of Representatives in March.

Both bills have since stalled in the House — making it about as far as they did in the previous congressional session.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that there is a 96% to 100% probability that the western monarch population will collapse within 50 years. That probability is 80% for the species' eastern population, according to the agency.

Eastern monarch butterflies, which reside on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, have faced a population decline of about 70% since the early 1990s, while the western population has seen its population decline by about 99% since the 1990s.

Loss of milkweed and other flowering plants across monarch butterflies' habitat range, as well as wildfires, climate change, the widespread use of pesticides and the degradation and loss of overwintering groves in coastal California and Mexico have all contributed to the decline of the monarch population, according to the Xerces Society.

California State Parks has planted new trees in the Pismo Beach grove to bolster the monarch butterflies' habitat while they overwinter there. The agency has also planted native nectar plants that flower in the winter to provide a food source for the butterflies, Bronson said.

How you can help save monarch butterflies from extinction

Bronson advised San Luis Obispo County residents living near monarch overwintering sites to not plant milkweed, and instead plant winter-flowering nectar plants such as manzanita, bluedicks and seaside fleasbane. These provide good food sources for the insects as they leave the overwintering sites in the early spring, she said.

Additionally, there are several things people can do to help protect monarch butterflies, according to the Xerces Society.

The nonprofit organization suggests the following:

— Adopt an overwintering site and become an advocate for the site's protection and management.

— Plant native California flowers that bloom in the early spring (February through April) to provide critical food for the monarchs.

— If you live far away from overwintering sites, plant native milkweed including woollypod, California, heartleaf, narrowleaf and showy milkweed plants.

— Seek out non-chemical options to prevent and manage pests in your garden and landscaping. Pesticides, herbicides and insecticides can all kill monarch butterflies.

— Report all monarch adult, caterpillar, egg, nectaring and milkweed sightings to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper.

— Use the hashtag #SaveWesternMonarchs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to raise awareness, and add a Save Western Monarchs frame to your Facebook profile picture.

For details, go to xerces.org/western-monarch-call-to-action.

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