This is the best time of year to see Monarchs as they overwinter on the Central Coast. Each year, the high stakes question for one peninsula town is: how many butterflies will return?
It’s a chilly morning at the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove. Erica Krygsman stands at the edge of the heavily wooded park looking up into the trees with binoculars. Krygsman and a volunteer are counting butterflies for the CalPoly Monarch Alert Project, which focuses on the population fluctuations of western monarchs. They use a visual count and estimation formula to figure out how many butterflies are in the Sanctuary. “This is the most accurate way to do it,” said Krygsman, Monterey County Field Coordinator for Monarch Alert.
These weekly counts are important in Pacific Grove, also known as Butterflytown USA. It’s an identity so important voters decided to purchase this sanctuary about ten years ago. Several local businesses are named after the butterfly. “It’s a huge deal. I mean it defines what we are all about,” said Moe Ammar, President of the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce. In a good year, he estimates 60,000 people visit the sanctuary, and that adds up to millions in tourist dollars. “I do lose sleep over it, and that’s the truth,” said Ammar, “it’s like what are the Monarchs up to this year?”
This year is a good year for the Monarch. The most recent Sanctuary count showed nearly 13,000 butterflies. That number is double what the count was this time last year. “There’s always caution in interpreting the meaning of an individual’s years count. For example, two years ago we had extremely low population counts in the sanctuary, and there’s lots of excitement that the counts are up at the Sanctuary. So that low was not really representative of the future, so this high isn’t really representative of the future,” said Dr. Francis Villablanca, Monarch Alert Science Advisor. He says these annual fluctuations are happening all over California, and the highs and lows over the past two decades do add up to a steady downhill trend for the Monarch population. “There’s cause for concern in that it’s the sort of pattern that we see as populations move towards extinction,” said Dr. Villablanca. One theory for the decline is that there’s less milkweed in areas like the Central Valley, and Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed.
“There’s a huge concern,” said Lori Mannel, Executive Director of the Pacific Grove Museum of National History. It staffs the sanctuary with docents to educate the public. “To let them know about the incredible, unique aspects of the Monarch migration. And how important it is to support measures like the citizens of Pacific Grove have done to purchase and preserve land use for specific Monarch habitats, as well as, reduction of specific pesticides inland to help foster populations of milkweed in the inland areas,” said Mannel. The City also recently completed a ten-thousand-dollar restoration project in the Sanctuary. Public Works Superintendent Mike Zimmer says it’s rewarding to see this year’s high numbers. “We hope that the work that we did helps contribute to that, but we really don’t know because we’re actually watching nature, and we have no control over that,” said Zimmer. The Monarch season continues through February.