January 31, 2008

Bob Pyle and his net (Marsha) at Ellwood Mesa next to Ellwood Main Monarch Grove and Coronado Butterfly Preserve, Goleta CA. Photo by Debra Piot, taken Jan 19, 2008.


The Xerces Society January 31, 2008 - The Xerces Society

Monarch Butterflies in Western North America in Jeopardy

Population of monarchs overwintering in California at lowest level ever recorded

Media Contacts:

Emma Pelton, Endangered Species Conservation Biologist; emma.pelton@xerces.org, (971) 533-7245

Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director; sarina.jepsen@xerces.org, (971) 244-3727

PORTLAND, Ore.; Thursday, 1/17/19—The population of monarch butterflies overwintering in California has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded. Surveys done by volunteers with the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count found only 28,429 butterflies, an 85.2% fall from the previous year—and a 99.4% decline from the number of monarchs in the state in the 1980s. The results of the count were released Thursday by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, along with a Western Monarch Call to Action.

“To picture what this means for monarchs, imagine that the population of Los Angeles had shrunk to that of the town of Monterey,” said Emma Pelton, a monarch conservation expert with the Xerces Society.

Faced with these alarming numbers, Pelton has worked with monarch scientists at institutions across the West to develop the Western Monarch Call to Action, a five-point rapid-response action plan to rescue the western population of the monarch butterfly.

The most immediate priority in the coming weeks is to ensure monarchs have nectar to fuel their flight and milkweeds on which they can lay their eggs when they leave the overwintering sites. This is something that everyone in California can help with right now: plant early blooming native flowers and milkweed to restore breeding and migratory habitat. Monarchs will use plants growing in gardens, parks, along railroads, on farms and anywhere else they can find them.

“It’s easy to give up when faced with news like this,” said Pelton. “But doing nothing is not an option.”

Of equal importance to ensuring monarchs have flowers is protecting their overwintering sites. Each year, the groves they shelter in are destroyed or damaged by development or inappropriate tree trimming. This needs to be halted and the groves given adequate protection and management, so that monarchs have a place to return to next fall.

There are important questions that remain unanswered about monarchs, such as a detailed understanding of where they go right after they leave the overwintering sites. People can watch out for monarchs and report what they see to the online Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project to help inform conservation strategies.

Other important actions include reducing pesticide use, so monarch have clean places to feed and breed, and identifying and enhancing areas across the western states where monarchs fly to during the summer.

Many state and federal agencies, farmers, nonprofits and individuals are increasing their conservation efforts, but more work needs to be done.

“Saving the western monarch migration is not something that the Xerces Society can do alone” said Sarina Jepsen, director of the Xerces Society’s endangered species program. “There are things that can be done by anyone in any place. We urge you to join us and our colleagues in the western monarch science and conservation community in taking meaningful, swift action to help save western monarchs.”

The Xerces Society is taking action to protect the western population of monarchs. Xerces is pushing for protection of overwintering sites and working with partners to restore overwintering habitat near the coast. Also, working with farmers, natural area managers, California cities and others, we are planting and restoring habitat across the Central Valley—a key breeding and migration area for monarchs. In the last 18 months, we have restored 20 miles of hedgerows on farms, and in the coming year, we will be adding another 10 miles to further re-connect habitats. These hedgerows provide essential nectar sources, milkweed for breeding, and unsprayed refuge.

Xerces staff are working with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Center in California to conduct planting trials of milkweed and monarch nectar plants to develop best practices for establishing these plants in the state.

“Can we promise that monarchs will recover and fill California’s skies again?” said Xerces Society Executive Director Scott Hoffman Black. “Sadly, no. But we are not going to be the generation that witnessed this loss and stood by and did nothing.”

It is urgent that we focus on conservation across California and the west if we hope to have the best chance to save the western monarch migratory phenomenon, the overwintering aggregations and the tourist dollars that benefit California from visitors coming to see clustering monarchs.

The monarch population in eastern United States and which migrates to Mexico has declined by more than 80% in the last 20 years, but has not suffered the same alarming fall in numbers this year.


For More Information

To read the Western Monarch Call to Action and download a copy, visit savewesternmonarchs.org.

Photos available for media use are below.

Long-term data about the number of monarch butterflies in western North America, gathered by the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, is at westernmonarchcount.org.

Help expand knowledge of monarchs and their breeding areas in the western US by contributing sightings to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project, at monarchmilkweedmapper.org.

Resources, fact sheets and guidelines from the Xerces Society

About The Xerces Society

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Established in 1971, the Society is a trusted source for science-based information and advice. We collaborate with people and institutions at all levels and our work to protect monarchs, bumble bees and many other species encompasses all landscapes. Our team draws together experts from the fields of habitat restoration, entomology, botany and conservation biology with a single passion—protecting the life that sustains us. To learn more about our work, please visit xerces.org or follow us @xercessociety on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Photos for Media Use:

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Record Low Number of Overwintering Monarch Butterflies in California—They Need Your Help!

Working at a conservation nonprofit means that we often come across bad news, but the results from this winter’s Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count left us shocked: an all-time record low of 28,429 monarchs at 213 sites.

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 (Schultz et al. 2017). In short, only one of every 160 monarchs present in the 1980s exists today.

For every 160 monarchs there were in the 1908s, there is now only one.

Click to enlarge this image.

The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count began when concerned scientists and citizens started counting overwintering monarchs 22 years ago—worried that monarch numbers were dropping. This long-term community-science effort continues to provide critical information that is used to track the size of the western monarch population. These are the monarchs that overwinter in coastal California, with smaller numbers in Arizona and northern Baja, Mexico (this is a separate migration from monarchs in the eastern US that head to Mexico). Only through the participation of so many dedicated volunteers can we continue to be able to capture the status of the California overwintering population and document this precipitous decline.

This year’s low estimates were foreshadowed by reports of low numbers of the western monarch breeding population observed during the summer in western states and preliminary Thanksgiving count data. The drop between the 2017 and 2018 counts may be attributable to late-season storms and a severe wildfire season in California and elsewhere in the West. And while this year’s numbers are alarming, the real issue is the longer-term decline of the butterfly due to stressors such as habitat loss and degradation (including nonnative plants), pesticides, and climate change. There are also 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 monarch population. Research into monarch losses is active and ongoing, but the depth and abruptness of the recent declines means that we need to act now based on the available evidence. The western monarch population may collapse completely if we wait until all of the answers are fully in focus. Urgent action is crucial because research has suggested that a population as low as the one we have seen this year may result in a partial or total collapse of the western monarch migration.

Western Monarchs in Decline

Although the amount of overwintering sites being monitored has increased in the past eleven years, the amount of monarchs observed during that time has dropped significantly. Click to enlarge this image.

In an effort to save the western monarch migratory population, the Xerces Society developed the Western Monarch Call to Action, 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. We recognize and support longer-term recovery efforts in place for western monarchs such as the WAFWA plan and MJV implementation plan. This call to action, however, identifies steps that can be done 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 to set the stage for longer-term efforts to have time to start making a difference.

The Xerces Society is taking action for monarchs across the United States, with a special focus on restoring breeding and overwintering habitat for the western population in California. We are pushing for protection for overwintering sites and working with partners to restore overwintering habitat near the coast.

Also, working with farmers, natural area managers, California cities and others, we are planting and restoring habitat across the Central Valley—a key breeding and migration area for monarchs. In the last 18 months, we have restored 20 miles of hedgerows on farms, and in the coming year, we will be adding another 10 miles to further re-connect habitats. These hedgerows provide essential nectar sources, milkweed for breeding, and unsprayed refuge.

Xerces staff are working with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Centers in California and Idaho to conduct planting trials of milkweed and monarch nectar plants to develop best practices for establishing these plants.

Saving the western monarch migration is not something that we at the Xerces Society can do alone. We must change our landscapes to give monarchs a fighting chance to find nectar, have enough milkweeds for breeding, and complete their annual migration across the western states to return to secure overwintering sites in California next fall. There are steps that can be taken by anyone in any place. We urge you to join us and our colleagues in the western monarch science and conservation community in taking meaningful, swift action to help save western monarchs.

Monarch overwintering in California

There is still time to save western monarchs and their magnificent migration, but we need to act—quickly, decisively, and together. (Photo: Xerces Society / Candace Fallon)

Top 5 Actions to Help Save Western Monarchs

The five actions listed below offer our best chance to recover western monarch populations. Here, we only mention the most urgent steps to be taken under each of the five actions, steps that should be taken in the next few weeks. To see what steps need to be taken during the next 12 months and to find information and guidance to help you act, please visit our Save Western Monarchs page.

1. Protect and manage California overwintering sites.

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.

Monarch cluster

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. If you are in California, plant nectar sources, especially flowers that bloom in the early spring (February–April), and native milkweed, especially species which emerge earliest and are already at the seedling or transplant stage. These actions can be done right now to support monarchs that will be leaving overwintering sites in the coming weeks. Refer to our Milkweed Seed Finder to locate a native milkweed vendor near you.

Monarch with showy milkweed (A. speciosa)

Monarch flying over showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Availability of larval host plants and nectar sources is a key component to western monarch conservation. (Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)

3. Protect monarchs and their habitat from pesticides.

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 on the commercial production of milkweed plants.

Jumping spider

A bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax) with its prey. Jumping spiders are one of many natural predators of crop pests that can serve as a viable alternative to pesticides. (Photo: Bryan E. Reynolds)

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

Monarchs spread out across the western states, seeking breeding areas. For the butterflies to return to their overwintering sites next fall, we need to identify existing monarch habitat and protect it from destruction, and then in the months ahead manage these areas in way that minimizes harm and restore monarch habitat.

Narrowleaf milkweed

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.

The most immediate need is for people in California and Arizona 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. In the weeks and months ahead, we also need eyes looking out for monarchs across the rest of the West, in particular, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. Please contribute this data to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper.

Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count

Volunteers participate in the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, the annual citizen science effort to monitor the population of western monarchs overwintering on the California coast that has provided insight into recent monarch declines. (Photo: Charis van der Heide)

How Xerces Can Help You

Saving western monarchs is a big task, and we all need to work together. Xerces is here to help you.

Thank You

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

Written by Katie Hietala-Henschell and Emma Pelton, Xerces Society Conservation Biologists

Further Reading

Learn more on our Save Western Monarchs Page.

Check out our best management practices for western monarchs here.

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s overall monarch conservation program here.

Keep an eye on the #SaveWesternMonarchs campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for further tips and updates—and spread the word! Download and share the graphics below! Click each image for a full-size, high-resolution version.

Western monarchs have declined by 99.4% since the 1980s.For every 160 monarchs there were in the 1908s, there is now only one.The western monarch population has declined from 4.5 million in the 1980s (larger than the current population of LA) to a mere 28,429 today (smaller than Monterey).

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Pollinators and the 2018 Farm Bill 

On December 20, 2018, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, otherwise known as the 2018 Farm Bill, became law. The Farm Bill is a multilayered piece of legislation that is revised roughly every five years that addresses a wide array of topics pertaining to agriculture, rural communities, and food systems—including pollinator conservation, pesticide regulation, and habitat restoration in agricultural areas. The far-reaching effects of the Farm Bill have significant implications for the Xerces Society’s work to protect invertebrates.

Long horned bee on plains coreopsis

The implications of the Farm Bill are broad, but this legislation also impacts the small creatures that make our agricultural system possible—namely, pollinators and other beneficial insects. (Photo: Xerces Society / Jennifer Hopwood)

The Xerces Society and other sustainable agriculture groups see the 2018 Farm Bill as a mixed bag—there are some beneficial aspects and some that will have a negative impact on farmers and conservation. This was well expressed by Juli Obudzinski, Interim Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, who said in a press statement prior to the president signing the bill, “Family farmers and sustainable food and farm advocates fought hard for this farm bill, and while there are certainly some provisions with which we are disappointed, we are overall glad to see the bill moving forward and to the president’s desk.”

Collaborating to Support Pollinators in the Farm Bill

Since 2006, we have been honored to collaborate with a broad coalition of nonprofits, as well as several elected officials—including former Senator Barbara Boxer (California) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (Oregon). For the 2018 Farm Bill cycle, we give special thanks to Senator Jeff Merkley (Oregon) and his staff, who led an effort to promote pollinators and beneficial insects in this Farm Bill. National Wildlife Federation, with whom we recruited 34 conservation and sustainable agriculture groups to sign a letter asking Farm Bill conferees to protect pollinators in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The Xerces Society has worked on the last three Farm Bills to ensure that pollinators and other beneficial insects are recognized and provided with conservation and research funding. A significant success for the 2008 Farm Bill was that Xerces staff and partners were able to include language making all pollinators a “priority resource concern.” This encouraged the USDA to work with farmers, ranchers, and other private land managers to plan and fund pollinator enhancements—such as pollinator meadows, hedgerows, cover crops, and field borders, through conservation programs administered by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency. In 2008, we also helped to include language authorizing USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative grants to fund needed pollinator research. Xerces staff then worked to maintain and strengthen this language in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Hedgerow Planting

From 2008 on, the Farm Bill has supported conservation programs administered by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, which have encouraged the implementation of hedgerows and other pollinator enhancements. (Photo: Xerces Society / Nancy Lee Adamson)

Xerces Society Goals for the 2018 Farm Bill

Our goals for the 2018 bill were to make sure all of the important pollinator provisions from the last two farm bills were retained, as well as to:

  • • Reconstitute the federal interagency Pollinator Health Task Force to formalize coordination among federal agencies working to support pollinators across private and public lands;
  • • Direct the USDA Chief Scientist to facilitate cost-effective research on honey bees and other pollinators by assigning an individual at the USDA to serve as a national honey bee and pollinator research coordinator;
  • • Encourage pollinator habitat development and protection by increasing our understanding and implementation of strategies that integrate natural predators of crop pests into agricultural systems for pest control—which would represent a new and significant step for sustainable agriculture;
  • • Ensure that key provisions in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are maintained and improved by increasing acreage without undermining habitat quality and farmer willingness to participate;
  • • Eliminate provisions that would undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to approve pesticides without consulting the federal agencies charged with protecting listed pollinator species; and
  • • Eliminate provisions that would undermine the ability of state and local governments to develop pesticide policies that are more protective of people and natural resources than federal regulations.

Pollinator Habitat on Farm

Many of the recommendations for the 2018 Farm Bill put forth by the Xerces Society and partners pertained to the establishment and maintenance of habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects. (Photo: Xerces Society / Brianna Borders)

Outcomes for Pollinators from the 2018 Farm Bill

We are happy to report that we achieved our top priority: maintaining the previous gains for pollinator conservation from past Farm Bills. The final 2018 Farm Bill also had some important additions that will help pollinators and other beneficial insects.

For example, pollinator and beneficial insect research got a boost. The Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant program will now prioritize research into how natural enemy complexes can help with pest management, and thus provide farmers with knowledge that may reduce potential pesticide impacts to pollinators and other beneficial insects.

We were happy to see an increase in the total acreage cap for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and only a minimal reduction in rental rate payments for farmers. This will help protect an additional three million acres of potential habitat. However, we were disappointed to see a decrease in payments for the seeds used in implementing CRP conservation practices. When targeting native pollinator conservation, supporting the use of diverse wildflower seed mixes is important, and sometimes higher-cost seed mixes are necessary for quality restoration, especially to create resilience in the face of a changing climate.

Farm Habitat

Diverse native seed mixtures are key to creating climate-resilient habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects. Unfortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill decreased payments for the seeds used in implementing Conservation Reserve Program conservation practices. (Photo: Xerces Society / Sarah Foltz Jordan)

We also appreciate the mandate that the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist appoint someone to coordinate pollinator research within the agency, but we are disappointed that the final bill did not mandate a formal reconstitution of the federal Pollinator Health Task Force. While we anticipate that this task force will continue to operate, we would ask that the USDA’s appointed scientist help facilitate regular meetings of these agency leaders.

Our work with a broad coalition also helped to eliminate provisions that would undermine the ability of the Endangered Species Act to protect pollinators from pesticide exposure, as well as provisions that would have reduced opportunities for state or local municipalities to develop policies more protective of people, pollinators and natural resources.

Rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis)

The endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). The Xerces Society’s work with a broad coalition helped to eliminate provisions in the Farm Bill that would have undermined the ability of the Endangered Species Act to protect pollinators from pesticide exposure. (Photo: Xerces Society / Rich Hatfield)

Priorities of the Farm Bill Authors that Did Not Make It into Law

The Farm Bill, like any major piece of legislation, is the result of months of drafts and revisions as it passed through Congress. Members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate and their staff write drafts, and each house considers it separately and then in “conference” with people from both parties to reconcile differences. At the end of this effort, not everything that was proposed is included in the final bill—but during the conference process, the authors also express their intention for how conservation programs should be administered outside of the actual language of the Farm Bill. Specifically, the authors of the Farm Bill encouraged the USDA to:

  • • Include pollinator habitat as a priority of NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants;
  • • Use native plants wherever practical in USDA conservation efforts; and
  • • Expand upon existing work at the USDA to protect and enhance pollinator habitat through adoption of area-wide conservation plans, increased use of integrated pest management, and implementation of habitat enhancements for beneficial insects.

In sum, although we did not get everything we wanted in the 2018 Farm Bill, the very good news is that pollinators are still a priority for the USDA and the Natural Resource Conservation Service—and formal commitments to support conservation efforts are now in effect for at least the next five years. With Xerces Society pollinator partner biologists working with the NRCS across the U.S., we will continue to collaborate with farmers, agricultural agency staff, and others to implement Farm Bill programs to promote conservation on working lands, and work closely with scientists to best understand what approaches are the most effective for long-term pollinator health. We are thankful that the 2018 Farm Bill provides some key support to continue this multifaceted work, serving the Xerces Society’s mission of protecting the life that sustains us.

Written by Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces Society Executive Director


Learn more about the Xerces Society’s pollinator conservation program.

Read about more intersections of policy and conservation.


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