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Monarch magic is back in Butterfly Town, U.S.A.

Erika Mahoney / KAZU News
Pacific Grove’s monarch sanctuary is filled with thousands of monarchs this winter. Last year, there were zero.

Even on an overcast day, Pacific Grove’s monarch butterfly sanctuary is brimming with excitement. Couples hold hands as they walk through the outdoor oasis of towering Eucalyptus trees. School children on a field trip point to the sky each time they spot fluttering wings.

McKenna Campbell-Yui, a second grader at San Carlos School, is first in line when the students get to look through a scope. It helps them spot the monarchs hiding in the trees.

“They look really cool, and when we look in the periscope, we can see them up close and they're all in a cluster hanging down like a vine,” Campbell-Yui said.

Erika Mahoney / KAZU News
McKenna Campbell-Yui, a second grader from San Carlos School, was thrilled to learn about monarchs.

Caleb Schneider, who manages the sanctuary for Pacific Grove, has been receiving emails and phone calls daily from people who want to visit.

“The people who've been coming here every year, their faces are lit up,” said Schneider. “The docents and our volunteers are much happier. There's a brightness to them that I just didn't see last year during this time.”

Last year, the sanctuary sat quiet and empty — no butterflies and no people. It was heartbreaking to scientists and the community. Schneider worried about what the loss of monarchs would mean for Pacific Grove.

“I'm sure a lot were thinking last year, ‘Oh, this is it. That's it. We're not going to have butterflies in PG anymore. Might as well take it off the city logo,’” Schneider said.

Pacific Grove is known as Butterfly Town, U.S.A. for the thousands of monarchs that visit every winter. The theme is all over town, from the bubblegum-pink motel named the Butterfly Grove Inn to the annual parade that celebrates the monarchs’ arrival in October.

The city’s two-acre sanctuary is one of California’s main overwintering sites, providing just the right conditions for monarchs to survive the colder months, like wind protection and sunlight.

Back in the late 1990s, when the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation began tracking monarch populations, around 45,000 monarchs showed up to the sanctuary. In 2017, numbers dropped to around 7,000 and continued to decline. The real shock came last year when not a single monarch butterfly was observed at the sanctuary.

Erika Mahoney / KAZU News
Visitors gather at the sanctuary’s scope to get a close-up view of the monarchs. The scope is attached to an iPad, allowing them to see a livestream of their activity.

But in a surprising comeback, more than 14,000 monarchs are staying in the sanctuary this winter. And the butterflies aren’t just back in Pacific Grove. Unofficial tallies from the Xerces Society show more than 200,000 monarchs at overwintering sites in California. In 2020, there were less than 2,000.

Sarina Jepsen, the endangered species program director at the Xerces Society, said it's an impressive uptick compared to the last three years.

“That said, we need to see high numbers of monarch butterflies for several years in a row before we can be confident that we're seeing a recovery,” Jepsen said.

Jepsen said there are several hypotheses explaining the sudden increase. One possibility is that an influx of eastern monarchs contributed to the western population. While nothing is for certain yet, the Xerces Society points to changes in the climate.

“Monarch butterflies, like all insects, are influenced by their climate, the amount of rainfall and the temperatures from the year prior,” Jepsen said. “And that can really change their populations dramatically from year to year.”

Climate change and habitat loss are the main culprits for the decline in monarch populations. But now the butterflies are getting some help from the federal government. A bill co-authored by local Congressman Jimmy Panetta was rolled into the Infrastructure Act that President Biden signed last month. The Act includes funding for restoring monarch habitat along America’s roadsides.

Panetta also introduced another bill called the MONARCH Act, which stands for the Monarch Action, Recover, and Conservation of Habitat Act. If enacted, it would support restoration of overwintering sites like Pacific Grove’s monarch sanctuary.

Erika Mahoney / KAZU News
Caleb Schneider, the environmental program manager for the city of Pacific Grove, manages the sanctuary.

Sanctuary manager Caleb Schneider says a year-to-year response to the changing environment isn’t enough to save monarchs. The city’s next move is to develop a habitat management plan. It would assess the physical structure of the sanctuary and plan for things like the inevitable loss of well-established Eucalyptus trees along the sanctuary’s southern side that provide an important windbreak.

Schneider hopes the plan will begin to take shape next year after the monarchs depart and head towards Salinas and the Central Valley to finish their migration. If you want to see the monarchs, Schneider recommends visiting the sanctuary before March. It’s open from sunrise to sunset seven days a week unless there’s severe weather.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.