Vicki Mion’s face lights up when she talks about her beloved Monarch butterflies, which she and the Brookings Oregon Monarch Advocates (BOMA) are trying to help survive in a changing world environment.
But this fall, it’s a different story.
Friday, Mion sighed when asked about the annual Thanksgiving Day Count, which showed populations of the iconic orange and black butterfly have fallen by 86 percent since last year.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised because of what had happened here. We had so few Monarchs in Oregon and Washington this year, I knew it wouldn’t be good. (Oldtimers say) We used to have Monarch butterflies in droves — you had to swat them away. It’s devastating.”
According to Xerxes Society, an international nonprofit dedicated to invertebrate conservation, monarch lovers weren’t expecting this year’s count to be great due to drought, fire and smoke along the migration path and in over-wintering areas.
But they didn’t think it would be this bad.
Phrases like “disturbingly low,” “worse than anyone had anticipated,” and “population down an order of magnitude from last year — and that, a low population itself” abound on monarch websites this fall.
“(Populations) bounce around from one year to another, so any one year isn’t an issue,” said Emma Pelton, a conservation biologist with Xerxes. “But they’ve been so hammered for so many years, we’re worried.”
It is “within the realm of possibility” that Monarch populations on the West Coast could cease to exist, she added.
“Monarch’s strike a core part of us,” she said. “It’s a butterfly most of us grew up with. Monarchs are part of our existence; just the idea that we’ve made things this inhospitable for a butterfly that’s this beloved is a bad wake-up call.”
Next year should be a litmus test.
“A fair amount die over the winter,” Pelton said. “What we’re really concerned about is if we have a really bad winter and a lot of them die. There could be not enough to recolonize all of their range. Next year will be very telling.”
There is a minimum population that could be the tipping point, but biologists aren’t sure what the number is.
“Thirty thousand is what the experts say is the minimum,” Pelton said. “We’re going to put that number to the test. We’re starting to run the risk that the population is so small that at some point we (could) drop below some minimum and there’s not enough (butterflies).”
According to Xerxes scientists, preliminary counts from 97 sites show a typical overwinter population of 148,000 monarch butterflies. This year, volunteers counted only 20,456.
“They’re looking for a nice cozy safe refrigerator, not too hot, not too cold,” Mion said. “When you start to lose trees, there’s nowhere to roost. As we lose those trees, that will be the first thing.”
A reliable food supply is key.
“As more and more Roundup is used, there’s fewer wildflowers,” Mion said. “What happened?”
She said BOMA members are devastated, but hopeful, too.
“One Monarch can lay 400 to 500 eggs, Mion said. “One school, one community, can make a difference. We’re losing the phenomenon of the Western migration and for the children to see the wonder of the massive quantity in the trees. I feel we can make a difference. I’m not giving up.”
Invertebrate scientists hope it’s not the beginning of the end for the Western Monarch population.
“We will keep our fingers crossed that other sites are hosting more monarchs,” Pelton wrote in a blog after the preliminary numbers were in after the Thanksgiving Day count. “However, we are very troubled to observe such an apparently large decline in the population this year. While overwintering populations naturally fluctuate, even by double-digit percentages, the magnitude of this year’s drop is of significant concern because the monarch population was already at a new low after the 97 percent decline it has experienced since the 1980s.”
If the rest of the count data follows the same trend, officials expect to see fewer than 30,000 butterflies overwintering in California this year. In comparison, there were 192,000 counted in 2017.
That figure is down precipitously from more than 1 million in 1997 and 4.5 million in the 1980s.
Scientists hypothesize an array of reasons for the plunge in numbers this year.
They believe it happened in early spring, during which time researchers from numerous universities noted that numbers were low from the beginning of the breeding season in March and April — and they never recovered.
Early spring is a vulnerable time for Monarchs because harsh weather conditions coincide with the end of their lifespans. California was hit with a late rainy season in March, had a long and intense fire season and smoke contributed to an already poor air quality base throughout the West.
Its East Coast cousins, however, fared well this year, Xerxes reported.
“In short, 2018 was a tough year to be a monarch butterfly in the West,” Pelton said. “But that in and of itself would not have led to the crisis we are currently seeing. In my lifetime, the monarch population in California has gone from millions of butterflies to hundreds of thousands and now, possibly, mere tens of thousands.”
Other known stressors include overwintering and breeding habitat loss, pesticides and climate change.
“These long-term stressors are what we all need to be paying attention to and addressing,” Pelton said. “We cannot change the weather to prevent the occasional wet, late spring storm or drought or wildfire. What we can and should be working on is addressing and reversing widespread habitat loss and pesticide use throughout the monarch’s range.”
While there is little individuals can do about the weather — much less the rapidly changing climate — Xerxes encourages people to plant milkweed, the primary food for the butterfly.
The organization also recommends avoiding pesticides, rodenticides and other chemicals.
Those who are interested are encouraged to visit www.monarchmilkweedmapper.org to report sighting of butterflies and milkweed, ideally with a photo that notes the GPS site. Using that data, authorities can avoid mowing patches of milkweed growing alongside a road, for instance.
Sightings during the butterfly’s migration period, from February to April, are particularly important because that’s when this year’s swarms suffered the most mortality — and it’s a stage of their lifecycle scientists know the least about.
Gardeners are urged to plant milkweed and nectar-bearing flowers — and perennial plants now, during the fall, Pelton said. Annuals can be planted from February to April.
“People are thinking about it, but the super low numbers really add lot of urgency,” Pelton said. “We need to make changes now.
Next year will be a real test in how resilient the western monarch population is,” she continued. “If we want to have monarchs migrate through the western U.S., sustained work is needed. Three decades of decline won’t be overturned quickly.”
Free Western Monarch status update: What’s happening and what can be done to help
When: 5:30 to 7 p.m. Dec. 13
Where: Gold Beach Public Library, presented by Curry Watershed Partnership
Who: Monarch experts Tom Landis and Robert Coffan will speak
Getting there: Trolley rides from the city lot across from Redwood Theater in Brookings will be available at 4:30 p.m. for the first 22 people who reserve, by calling 541-373-9196. The cost for the round-trip ride $10 and can be paid by cash or check. It is suggested riders bring a blanket and a seat cushion. Others wishing to carpool can meet in that parking lot to make arrangements.