Let there be monarchs

Monarch butterfly numbers in California ticked up this winter, but no one is calling it a recovery.


Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy/High Country News

Amid winter’s dreary news of a less than normal snowpack, declining biodiversity, rising inflation, and yes, still COVID — long-haul COVID, asymptomatic COVID, endemic COVID — was a speck of good news: Monarch butterfly populations along the California coast rebounded some. It was not a huge rebound, but a meaningful one, since overwintering populations had dwindled from approximately millions in the ’80s to just a few thousand, a precipitous 95% drop. Some overwintering sites dipped to double digits — the one nearest to me had an official count of just 16 butterflies in 2020 — causing many to fear that the Western monarch, the population west of the Rockies that overwinters in California rather than Mexico, was nearly extinct.

We’ve seen this sharp curve of species decline before with the pelican, the vaquita and the honeybee, to name just a few. The pelican started to rebound once people stopped putting feathers on fancy hats and DDT was outlawed. The exact cause of the monarch’s decline is unknown, though pesticides and habitat destruction are likely culprits. What caused their numbers to tick upward is equally a mystery. Nevertheless, they are a sight to behold, as you stand at the base of a eucalyptus tree and watch them flutter overhead against the backdrop of a blue sky. Branches drip with densely perched monarchs, while individual members of the kaleidoscope — one name for a gathering of monarchs — constantly land and take flight.

There are moments when the world seems enchanted, when golden sunlight filters down and you feel your heart flutter like the wings of a Western monarch. Seeing the butterflies clustered in the trees after years of hardly seeing any was one such moment. The uptick in numbers, however, should not be considered a recovery. The population is still just a fraction of what it’s been in the recent past, and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next year. Despite this dire situation, monarchs have not been listed as endangered or threatened. In December of 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that “listing the monarch is warranted, but precluded by higher priority listing actions.” So the monarch sits in an endangered species waiting room, a bureaucratic limbo where its status will be reviewed annually.

Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief

Trying to save something from forever-gone status is a noble pursuit, and though the Endangered Species Act can help, it’s not the only way to save a species. In this issue you’ll read about the ongoing attempt to use cloning to save North America’s most endangered species, the black-footed ferret. Questions abound about the ethics of cloning, not to mention the ambitious de-extinction efforts that cloning could enable. Perhaps the biggest question is this: Wouldn’t it be better to appreciate, protect and foster the creatures that are here with us now, in this troubling and heartening moment in time on Earth?

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