Twenty Years of Counting Monarch Butterflies in California

Monarch clusters can be beautiful to behold. Photo: The Xerces Society / Candace Fallon
Monarch clusters can be beautiful to behold. Photo: The Xerces Society / Candace Fallon

SANTA CRUZ, Calif., November 18, 2016—Monarch butterflies have returned to forested groves along the California coast for the winter, and once again volunteers for the Xerces Society Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count are heading out to observe and monitor this phenomenon. This year is particularly exciting because it marks the 20th time the count has been done!

The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count (WMTC) is the longest running and most comprehensive effort to monitor overwintering monarchs in California. During a three-week period centered on Thanksgiving, volunteers count the butterflies and assess the condition of the habitat they rely on.

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Monarchs from as far away as Idaho, Washington, and Arizona converge during October and November on forested groves along the coast from Mendocino County, California to Baja, Mexico. Clinging to the branches of Monterey cypress, Monterey pine, and nonnative eucalyptus, they rely on the calm, humid environment of the groves as shelter from storms.

“Because monarchs cluster in groups of tens, hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands,” said Emma Pelton, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society who helps coordinate the count, “the overwintering season provides an opportunity to count the butterflies—a useful measure of the size of the western monarch population, and one that is even more important at a time when monarch populations are falling.”

A report based on data gathered through the WMTC, State of the Monarch Butterfly Overwintering Sites in California, was published by the Xerces Society this summer. The analysis of the data shows a 74% decline in the number of monarchs which overwinter along the California coast since the late 1990s.

There are currently 299 sites that are part of the WMTC with up to two thirds of them monitored in any single year. Visiting one to two hundred sites over five hundred miles of coast in a three-week period is no easy feat, and it takes the efforts of over a hundred volunteers.

The WMTC was started in the 1990s due to the dedication of three passionate biologists, Dennis Frey, David Marriott, and Mia Monroe, who had become concerned that monarch populations appeared to be declining. Over the years, the WMTC has grown in size and scope, but it still retains its grass-roots style of citizen science—and is still led by Mia Monroe!

As Mia Monroe puts it, “I am proud to see the counts but also the immediate connection to the monarch, the place, and the other devoted field biologists who make commitments to get out to the chilly coast to look for a cloud of fluttering orange and black butterflies, take the time to count, then turn around and share the methodology with others.”

This year, the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count runs from Saturday, November 12, through Sunday, December 4. Anyone interested in joining as a citizen scientist can find a nearby overwintering site and sign up at www.westernmonarchcount.org.

For More Information

Learn more about the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, find locations of local groves, connect with regional coordinators, and sign up to help at www.westernmonarchcount.org

Don’t live near coastal California? Check out the Xerces Pollinator Conservation Resource Center to see what actions you can take to make a difference for monarchs and other pollinators

Download the report, State of the Monarch Butterfly Overwintering Sites in California, at http://www.xerces.org/state-of-the-monarch-butterfly-overwintering-sites-in-california/

Read more about Xerces’ Monarch Conservation Campaign, including efforts to conserve overwintering sites in California and restore breeding habitat in key regions of the United States at http://www.xerces.org/monarchs/.

The Xerces Society has the world’s largest pollinator conservation team, with several staff currently working on monarch conservation. Efforts include conservation and management of critical habitat across central and western U.S., habitat restoration throughout the country, milkweed production best practices, restoration of overwintering sites in California, and engagement of citizens in monarch research and protection. Our staff participates in the Federal Monarch Butterfly High Level Working Group, the USGS Monarch Science Partnership, and co-chair the Monarch Joint Venture. We collaborate with many federal and state agencies or contract and work closely with university researchers and other NGOs to advance the science and practice of monarch conservation.