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An iconic migration is on the verge of collapse—we must all do our part to save western monarchs!

Once, millions of monarchs overwintered along the Pacific coast in California and Baja, Mexico—an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s. But by the mid-2010s, the population had declined by about 97%, and in 2018, the decline was that much more dramatic. The annual Xerces Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count showed that the population hit a record low: Volunteers counted only 28,429 butterflies. This number is an 86% drop from the previous count done at Thanksgiving 2017, when 192,668 monarchs were counted at 263 sites (comparing only the sites monitored in both years)—and a dizzying 99.4% decline from the numbers present in the 1980s.

It can be hard to wrap one’s mind around the scope of this decline. For every 160 monarch butterflies there were in the 1980s, there is only one left today. For a different sense of scale, the decline from 4.5 million to 28,429 monarchs is similar to the difference in size between Los Angeles and Monterey.

The scale of this decline is dramatic enough, but it also is significant due to what it may signify: 30,000 monarch butterflies is the number researchers set as their most educated guess for the threshold at which the western monarch migration could collapse (Schultz et al. 2017). Whether or not the population can bounce back from this season will only become apparent in the coming months and years.

While this year’s numbers are alarming, the real issue is the longer-term monarch decline due to stressors such as habitat loss and degradation, pesticides, and climate change—as well as other pressures on the migratory cycle of the monarch that we still have yet to fully study or comprehend. There are no quick fixes to solve all these large and complex forces, but we can still take actions NOW to help save the western population.

 

 

A graphic shows the relative size of Los Angeles' human population compared to Monterey's, and points out that the decline from the western monarch population's historic levels to today's overwintering population is of a comparable magnitude.

Western Monarch Call to Action

This Western Monarch Call to Action, led by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, aims to provide a set of rapid-response conservation actions that, if applied immediately, can help the western monarch population bounce back from its extremely low 2018–19 overwintering size.

The goal of this call to action is to identify actions that can be implemented in the short-term (the next few weeks or months up to one year), to avoid a total collapse of the western monarch migration and set the stage for longer-term efforts to have time to start making a difference.

To download the Call to Action as a PDF, click here.

In the call to action, we list the top five actions that will help stabilize and recover the western monarch population. The science investigating monarch declines is active and ongoing, but the western monarch population may collapse completely if we wait until all of the answers are fully in focus. The actions listed below are based on our current understanding of stressors that impact the monarch, as well as butterflies more generally, and on a precautionary principle that suggests we should always act to reduce harm.

Read our overarching recommendations below, which apply to everyone from land managers to individuals, or jump to actions that individuals can take to support western monarchs.

 

1. Protect and manage California overwintering sites.

 Right now:

We need to halt the destruction of overwintering habitat. In the next few months, we need to work at local, regional, and state levels to ensure that overwintering sites in California have sufficient legal and enforced protection.

Each year, overwintering sites are destroyed or damaged by human actions like development or inappropriate tree trimming, sometimes leading to total abandonment by the butterflies from the site.

 

In the next year:

We need to create and implement overwintering site management plans at as many overwintering sites as possible that have hosted significant numbers of monarchs in recent years.

You can adopt an overwintering site and become an advocate for the site’s protection and active management. Contact your local elected official to ask that monarch overwintering sites in your area be protected.

 

Resources:

 

 

Monarchs cluster on a pine branch. Those with their wings closed look more drab, similar to dead leaves. Those with their wings open are bright orange.
Monarchs cluster on a Monterey pine in California in 2011. Although the numbers of overwintering monarchs at various sites in California are much smaller now, overwintering sites are still crucial to the recovery of the western monarch. (Photo: Xerces Society / Candace Fallon)
 

2. Restore breeding and migratory habitat in California.

The primary focus for habitat restoration should be the Coast Range, Sacramento Valley, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada—areas critical to producing the first generation of monarchs in the spring.

 

Right now:

We need Californians to plant nectar species, especially flowers that bloom in the early spring (February–April) to provide critical nectaring resources for monarchs. Please keep these points in mind:

  • Plant flowers which are attractive to monarchs and other butterflies. Ideally, these would be native species which are adapted for climate change and which benefit other insects as well, but monarchs are fairly generalized in their nectar habits and can benefit from a wide range of flowering plants.
  • Particular emphasis should be placed on planting species which bloom early in the spring (blooming February–April), but also the fall (September–October). If you live near the coast, winter blooming (November–January) species are also valuable for overwintering monarchs to nectar on.

 

Monarch Nectar Plant Resources:

 

We also need Californians to plant native milkweed, especially species which emerge earliest and are already at the seedling or transplant stage. Please keep these considerations in mind:

  • Early emerging species native to California include woollypod (Asclepias eriocarpa), California (A. californica), and heartleaf milkweed (A. cordifolia); later-emerging native species with more seed availability include narrowleaf (A. fascicularis) and showy milkweed (A. speciosa).
  • In the desert southwest of California, plant rush (A. subulata) and desert milkweed (A. erosa).
  • In all cases, plant milkweed species native to California, and ideally, to your area.
  • Also, ideally, plant milkweed greater than 5 miles inland from overwintering sites. Milkweed doesn’t naturally grow close to the coast north of Santa Barbara and milkweed at overwintering sites can interrupt natural monarch overwintering behavior.

 

Milkweed Resources:

 

In the next year:

We need to work towards increasing native milkweed and nectar plant availability for both seeds and transplants. Ask your local nursery to start supplying native milkweed. Organize a group to collect milkweed seed and propagate it. Engage with seed companies, plant nurseries, and land management entities to work together to ramp up production and ensure a diverse supply of native milkweeds and nectar plants which are insecticide free.

We need to plant more native milkweed from seed and remove tropical milkweed to replace it with native milkweed and nectar plants. Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)—a nonnative species which stays evergreen and does not die back in areas with mild winters—interrupts the monarchs’ natural migratory cycle, leading to disease build-up and winter breeding which are both associated with poorer outcomes for monarchs, further exacerbating other stressors on the population. If you already have tropical milkweed in your garden, it is very important to cut it back to the ground in the fall (October/November) and repeatedly throughout the winter to mimic native milkweed phenology and break the disease cycle. Ideally, tropical milkweed should be removed entirely and replaced with native milkweed and/or nectar species.

 

 

A monarch clings to a stalk that has multiple brushy, yellow flowers.
Monarch nectaring on rabbitbrush. (Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)
 
A bright orange monarch flutters over pink milkweed blossoms in a green, grassy landscape.
A monarch flies over showy milkweed (A. speciosa). Providing sufficient milkweed (the monarch’s larval host plant) and other nectar plants is a key component to aiding western monarchs’ recovery. (Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)
 

3. Protect monarchs and their habitat from pesticides.

Right now:

We need to halt all cosmetic use of pesticides. Seek out non-chemical options to prevent and manage pests in your garden and landscaping.

We need to push to suspend the use of neonicotinoids in the commercial production of milkweed plants.

 

Resources:

 

In the next year:

 

We need to work to reduce herbicide and insecticide use in and around overwintering sites and in key breeding regions.

  • Avoid herbicide applications that might damage monarch breeding and migratory habitat such as milkweed and flowering plants. Use targeted application methods, avoid large-scale broadcast applications of herbicides, and take precautions to limit off-site movement of herbicides.
  • Neonicotinoid insecticides, in particular, should be avoided at all times in monarch habitat due to their persistence, systemic nature, and toxicity.

 

Resources:

 

 

A beetle with red coloration and black spots climbs on a green shoot.
Reducing reliance on pesticides and moving towards natural pest control—including creating conditions suitable for natural predators of crop pests like lady beetles (pictured)—is a key component of supporting the recovery of western monarchs. (Photo: Xerces Society / Jennifer Hopwood)
 

4. Protect, manage, and restore summer breeding and fall migration monarch habitat outside of California.

Right now:

Identify existing monarch habitat so you can work to protect it from destruction:

  • Plan field surveys, use the habitat suitability model to identify key areas, and learn milkweed species which may occur in your area.
  • Make a plan on how to protect that habitat this year.

 

Right now and in the next few months:

Manage monarch habitat in a way that minimizes harm. Conduct management activities such as mowing, burning, and grazing in monarch breeding and migratory habitat outside of the period when monarchs are present.

 

Resources:

 

Right now and over the next year:

Restore monarch habitat, particularly in areas highly suitable for monarchs and where habitat has been lost:

  • Habitat restoration in regions where monarch habitat historically occurred, but has been lost (such as the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and riparian areas) is of the highest priority outside of California. See the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper to preview maps of the areas with the highest monarch habitat suitability in the West. Contact [email protected] if you are interested in receiving copies of the associated map products for planning or research purposes.
  • We do not generally recommend planting milkweed outside of its native range (e.g., coastal Washington or in high elevation forests). While planting milkweed in these areas may not be harmful, it is unlikely to be effective for monarch conservation in the near-term.
  • While milkweed may not be a limiting factor for monarchs in all parts of their western range, restoring natural habitat or planting a pollinator garden that includes milkweed may be beneficial to monarchs and other pollinators.
  • As with all habitat restoration, consider how restoration actions can be made to be as climate-resilient as possible.

 

 

White milkweed flowers blossom in the foreground of an arid rangeland scene, dotted with shrubs. In the distance is cattle, and farther yet, some bluish mountains.
Narrowleaf milkweed (A. fascicularis) in rangeland in Nevada. Though the most urgent tasks are centered in California, the rest of the west has a role to play in the conservation of western monarchs. (Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)
 

5. Answer key research questions about how to best aid western monarch recovery.

Right now:

We need Californians and Arizonans to collect observations of monarchs and milkweeds, especially in the early spring (February–April), the period in which monarchs leave the overwintering sites and year-round breeding sites. This is the period of the year we know the least about monarch location and behavior.

We need research at overwintering sites and suspected early spring breeding sites to understand when monarchs are leaving the overwintering sites, their health and mating status, and milkweed phenology in nearby areas. This includes both additional monitoring at overwintering sites by Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count volunteers and targeted research coordinated by university researchers, which is already in preparation.

 

In the next few weeks and months:

We need eyes looking out for monarchs across the rest of the West, too, in particular, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. Together these observations will help answer questions about monarch breeding phenology and whether the West sees an influx of monarchs returning from Mexico. Answering these questions will directly help inform conservation strategies. Report all monarch adult, caterpillar, egg, nectaring, and milkweed sightings to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper; report the first adults observed to Journey North as well.

 

In the next year:

We need to partner with researchers to answer other key research questions to help target and refine conservation efforts. For example: Where are monarchs facing high levels of pesticide contamination and how can we minimize negative impacts of pesticides on monarchs? What are the causes of high overwintering mortality and how can we lower mortality risk at overwintering sites?

 

Resources:

 

 

Two women in coats, one with a knit hat, lean on a wooden fence and look into the distance with binoculars.
Volunteers participate in the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, an annual citizen science effort to monitor the population of western monarchs overwintering on the California coast. (Photo: Charis van der Heide)
 

Additional Ways to Help

The effectiveness of western monarch conservation efforts depends upon how many people get involved, and how rapidly they mobilize. Spread the word, including on social media. Use the hashtag #SaveWesternMonarchs on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to raise awareness, and add a Save Western Monarchs frame to your Facebook profile picture!

Similarly, share your story! Tell us about your work to save western monarchs and you just might get featured on our blog, which will help to inform and inspire others! Email your work to [email protected] and [email protected].

The Xerces Society’s work is only possible with the support of donors like you. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation today.

 

How Xerces Can Help You

Do you need help translating this call to action into action? Providing technical assistance to create, restore, manage, and protect monarch and pollinator habitat to agencies, tribes, nonprofits, and others is a core part of Xerces work. If you have further questions or want to connect your work as part of this Call to Action, contact us at [email protected].

 

Thank You

Thank you to the western monarch researchers and partners with whom conversations about the most effective actions we need to take helped form the basis of this call to action, including Wendy Caldwell, coordinator of the Monarch Joint Venture; Abi Convery, planning biologist for Ventura County; Elizabeth Crone, professor at Tufts University; Matt Forister, professor at University of Nevada–Reno; Jessica Griffiths, Charis van der Heide, and Dan Meade, overwintering site biologists in California; David James, associate professor at Washington State University; Karen Miner, biologist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife; Mia Monroe, co-founder of the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count; Gail Morris, coordinator of the nonprofit Southwest Monarch Study; Ann Potter, biologist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; Robert M. Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society; Cheryl Schultz, associate professor at Washington State University; Francis Villablanca, professor at Cal Poly; Beth Waterbury, retired biologist for Idaho Department of Fish and Game; Louie Yang, associate professor at University of California–Davis; and others.

Thank you to all the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count volunteers and regional coordinators whose dedication makes understanding the population’s status possible.

Thank you, too, to all the individuals and groups already doing good work on behalf of monarch conservation. Your work is critical—keep it up!

 

A bright orange monarch perches atop a small cluster of pink milkweed flowers.
(Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)