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Butterflies are back! More monarchs seen migrating through Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — The future is looking brighter for one of California’s most iconic species, monarch butterflies.

Butterflies fluttering in bigger numbers are being observed by volunteers and the public around the Bay Area, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, and Ventura, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“We are overjoyed that migratory monarch butterflies have not disappeared from the western U.S.,” said Emma Pelton, a senior conservation biologist for the Xerces Society.

“Early counts give us hope that, if we all work together, we can still bring western monarchs back,” Pelton said.

Every fall, the monarch butterfly migration arrives on the Central Coast and San Francisco Bay Area. Butterfly enthusiasts look forward to the brightly-colored orange and black insects’ arrival.

The number of monarchs counted in California dropped to a record-low last year, when less than 2,000 were counted statewide, compared to 4.5 million that migrated here in the 1980s.

A “near disappearance” of monarchs was reported in Marin County, according to West Marin’s Environmental Action Committee. Dramatic drops in sightings were also reported in Santa Cruz County.

“Last year there were zero at Natural Bridges,” said Alison Gamel, a Santa Cruz-based nature and landscape photographer.

“I had to take matters into my own hands,” Gamel told KRON4.

The save the fragile monarchs from going extinct, individuals like Gamel took action by planting butterfly-friendly flowers in their own backyards. Certain types of plants, such as goldenrod, black sage, and narrowleaf milkweed, give butterflies nutritional energy they need to survive chilly winter months, as well as a place for caterpillars to transform into butterflies.

Several caterpillars in Gamel’s backyard habitat morphed into shiny chrysalis and emerged as beautiful butterflies.

“It was pretty rad,” Gamel said. “I got photos of every different stage. It’s pretty rewarding.”

Some nonprofits handed out do-it-yourself home butterfly garden kits and encouraged Bay Area residents to start planting. Everyone’s backyard is a potential monarch habitat.

And this fall, more monarchs are arriving.

On October 16, “over 1,300 monarchs were counted at the Pacific Grove overwintering site; this site did not have a single monarch butterfly during last year’s count,” the Xerces Society  wrote. At Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, Gamel said there are about 3,000 monarchs clustering together in the sanctuary’s tree groves.

Some environmentalists believe butterflies are bouncing back thanks to California’s drought. Warmer and drier weather helps make the long migration an easier journey.

Western and Eastern monarch migration map. (NPS graphic/ S. Sparhawk)

“Every fall, as temperatures begin to drop in North America, monarch butterflies from as far north as Canada set out on a migration to warmer, southern climates,” The Nature Conservancy wrote. “The bright orange and black butterflies flap and glide from asters and goldenrods to coyote bush and rabbitbrush, traveling up to 100 miles per day.”

The fact that each butterfly knows where it’s going is astonishing.

One butterfly only lives about five weeks. So it’s their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren who actually complete the epic journey.

The public is encouraged to participate in the annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. It helps environmentalists figure out how many monarchs are overwintering in tree groves along the Pacific Coast of California. Click here to help count monarchs.

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