MONARCHS – 1989
Most of us are painfully aware of the number of plants and
animals that become extinct daily. But there is another form of
extinction, the extinction not of individuals but of a phenomena.
These are spectacular life history events involving thousands or
even millions of individuals. One example is the thundering herds
of buffalo that once roamed the North American plains. We rescued
a few buffalo from the slaughter but we have lost the thunder
California is blessed with several natural phenomena– the
migration of 20,000 gray whales past the coast every winter,
massive clusters of ladybugs in coastal forests, and the
overwintering of millions of Monarch butterflies.
Monarchs are the most familiar butterfly of all. The distinctive
orange and black markings and large size guarantee them a place
in every childs’ heart and memory. Monarch caterpillars feed upon
milkweeds, plants that contain poisonous chemicals called cardiac
glycosides. The larvae and the butterflies then become toxic.
Birds throw up when they attempt to eat a monarch. It only takes
one or two awful experiences for a scrub jay to permanently
remove these butterflies from his menu.
Monarchs belong to a large family of butterflies that are largely
tropical. However our particular species is able to migrate north
in the summer to feed and reproduce, but the monarchs cannot
tolerate cold temperatures so they must fly to spend the winter.
Monarchs have special requirements for wintering sites. It must
be cool but not too cold, occassionally warm but never hot. These
stable environments are rare. There are only two regions in all
of North America that meet these exacting requirements — one is
the top of a remote mountain and the other is right next to an
All of the monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains begin migrating
in late summer. Millions upon millions of butterflies move
through Texas and into Mexico, increasing in numbers as they
funnel south. Their ultimate destination was a mystery for years.
It was finally discovered in 1975. Who can forget that National
Geographic cover of the woman covered with monarch butterflies?
Some butterflies will travel over 3,000 miles to reach a remote
9,000 foot volcanic mountain range in south-central Mexico. That
is very impressive feat for an insect that weighs 1/40th of an
ounce. These peaks are covered with uncut fir forests, a pristine
area that provides the perfect environment for monarchs to
winter. So far only eleven tiny sites have been discovered.
Unfortunately poor rural Mexicans are beginning to log the area;
trees offer their only source of cash income. This precious area
is severely threatened.
The monarchs found west of the Rockies migrate to the coast of
California to winter. In Bolinas and Muir Beach we have several
butterfly trees. These areas are relatively protected from
development and disturbance but many other areas in California
are under siege. Not by the poor merely trying to survive but by
real estate developers.
One such site is in Pacific Grove, a small town in the Monterey
Pennisula. The City Council of Pacific Grove recently voted to
override the recommendations of its own planning commission and
approved the construction of five houses on a major wintering
sites for the Monarch butterfly. The planning commission had
recommended clustering the houses and preserving adequate open
space around the butterfly trees. But the council decided to
spread the houses out. Biologists fear that if the site is
severely altered, the butterflies may perish.
Pacific Grove calls itself the butterfly town. Every letter out
of the post office is canceled with a butterfly and this symbol
plastered on every town sign. Now I’m a firm believer in thinking
globally and acting locally. The citizens of Pacific Grove still
have a chance to make a difference — they will vote on a bond
issue to buy the entire parcel of land and make it a sanctuary.
Let us hope that they have the courage to tax themselves or the
only butterflies left in town will the ones at the post office.
FLASH: Just I was finishing this article the news came that the
City Council of Pacific Grove had reversed its decision. Hurray,
individuals can make a difference! Now if they will just vote for
the money to make it permanent.