WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Western population of the migratory monarch butterfly has seen a slight increase due to collaborative conservation efforts, but extreme weather events and the continued impacts of the climate crisis continue to threaten this iconic species. The 26th annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count from the Xerces Society recorded 335,479 monarch butterflies, a slight increase from last year’s total yet far short of the goal of a five-year annual average of 500,000 needed for the recovery of the species.
“Climate change is taking a toll on the Western monarch by damaging its overwintering grounds. Although this increase is heartening, it is clear that extreme weather events such as California’s latest winter extreme rainfalls show the devastating impacts of the climate crisis on the butterfly,” said Dr. Rebeca Quiñonez-Piñón, chief monarch recovery strategist for the National Wildlife Federation. “Joint efforts to reverse the western monarch declines should be steady, long-term and primarily focused on restoring and conserving their breeding and overwintering native habitats through effective climate adaption strategies. Climate change has its own agenda and we must counteract it fiercely to protect the monarch and its incredible migration.”
This year’s count indicates an increase from the previous year’s total of 247,237 monarch butterflies observed. Although the western migratory monarch successfully managed to increase its population size during its breeding season, the species overwintering grounds in California endured habitat devastation caused by the torrential rains. According to Xerces Society, the California overwintering groves suffered flooding that damaged the trees — where monarchs cluster to overwinter, due to the excessive water that pulled trees from their roots, forcing the monarchs to move from those areas in search of a new shelter.
“We can all celebrate this tally. A second year in a row of relatively good numbers gives us hope that there is still time to act to save the western migration. That said, we know we still have a long way to go to reach population recovery and the storms that hit right afterwards mean we’ll start the spring with far, far less than this total”, said Emma Pelton, the western monarch lead with the Xerces Society. “Small populations are particularly vulnerable to being snuffed out by extreme weather, so we are lucky these storms occurred in a relatively good year. We don’t want to count on luck alone to ensure the survival of the western monarch migration”.
Recovering the western monarch requires continued public and private investment and legislation that will help protect the native habitats, along with reducing reliance on pesticides. Legislation such as the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act which aims to support imperiled species such as the monarch butterfly before more expensive measures are required, along with the Monarch Action, Recovery, and Conservation of Habitat Act (or Monarch Act 2021) which provides the required funding to implement the Western Monarch Conservation Plan are critical to recovering the species. Monarch scientists and conservation experts gathered in Washington, D.C., last June for the first Monarch Butterfly Conservation Summit, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), where they shared the best practices for Western monarch conservation.
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