Monarch Butterfly Population Drops by 30 Percent in California

Monarch Butterfly Population Drops by 30 Percent in California

A Monarch butterfly is pictured at a butterfly farm in the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City on April 7, 2017. (Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)

Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

2/7/2024

Updated: 2/7/2024

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The population of western monarch butterflies in California has dropped by 30 percent since 2022, according to the most recent count conducted by the Xerces Society.
The count, done at 256 sites across the western United States from Nov. 11 through Dec. 3, 2023, shows about 233,400 western monarch butterflies stayed at sites along the California coast during the winter—about 102,000 fewer than the year before.
The 2023 population is only 5 percent of its size in the 1980s, according to the study published Jan. 30.
The dwindling monarch butterfly population is representative of declines of other at-risk butterflies, bees, moths, and beetles in North America, according to Isis Howard, an endangered species conservation biologist with the Xerces Society.
“Monarch butterflies are a flagship species,” Ms. Howard said in a Facebook video. “In other words, they’re sort of the poster child for butterfly and pollinator conservation efforts.”
The big orange, yellow, and black butterflies are also a special symbol for people across the continent, she added.
“Monarchs have such a unique two-way migration, where they’re migrating hundreds to thousands of miles across many states, entering habitats and environments and communities that span urban, suburban, and rural areas,” Ms. Howard said. “It’s very rare to find someone who has not had an experience with monarchs, because they are so well-known and iconic.”
The Monarch also knows the correct direction to migrate, even if it has never made the journey before, following an internal “compass” that points it in the right direction, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Monarch butterflies are seen as they overwinter in a protected area inside Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Jan. 26, 2023. (Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images)

Monarch butterflies are seen as they overwinter in a protected area inside Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Jan. 26, 2023. (Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images)

The 2023 tally is lower than 2022’s but similar to the 2021 count, according to the society.
The Xerces Society, an international nonprofit that protects and conserves invertebrates and their habitats, said it was difficult to predict how conditions during any single year influence the count, but the new count following the state’s severe winter storms in early  2023 revealed “the highest seasonal decrease on record.”
“This meant the population entered the spring breeding season with fewer butterflies,” Ms. Howard said.
Several factors influence how many butterflies show up at the winter sites each year, including temperature, rainfall, and the availability of milkweed and nectar resources, according to the group.
California’s central coast continues to host the state’s majority of monarchs during the winter, with about 178,000 butterflies reported in the latest count in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties combined. This was 76 percent of the winter count.
One butterfly spotted at the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary in Monterey County had been tagged by a group in northern Utah, meaning it had traveled over 700 miles, according to Xerces.
Despite preservation efforts, the western monarch faces significant challenges, the group reported. The primary threats  include the loss or destruction of its winter sites and breeding habitat, pesticides, and extreme weather conditions.
Recent changes include trees being removed at winter sites in Marin and Santa Barbara counties, leading to reduced numbers at both sites. These are locations within the coastal zone, meaning they are legally protected as sensitive habitat areas, according to the study.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed listing of monarchs under the federal Endangered Species Act is expected in the fall and could provide protection to the important places that the monarchs rely on each winter, the society said.
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Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

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Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.

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