Monarch Madness

For regular readers of my blog you might already know my stance on the monarch, but catch up here if you’d like to.  Yesterday I came across this article in the LA times – regarding the overwintering colonies of monarchs in Pacific Grove, CA.  Out here, west of the continental divide, there are quite a few monarchs that migrate to coastal California and Baja del Norte instead of traveling into central Mexico.  Not all monarchs from California stay in the state, but there are dozens hundreds of known roosting sites (.pdf) up and down our pacific coast.

Pacific Grove has one of the best known localities and has built the local economy around their seasonal migrants (yet no one is deporting these Mexicans).  In short, the town government hired an arborist to cut back dangerous eucalyptus growth.  Why was that necessary?  Back in 2004 a limb from a diseased native-pine had fallen and killed an 85-year-old woman while on a walk with her grandchildren.  In wake of the million dollar settlement paid to the family of the deceased the town decided to preemptively cut back old tree growth.  But now everyone is running around screaming foul, the trees were trimmed too much.  Yes, the precious homes of the monarchs were disturbed and it has riled the townspeople into a fury.  What if the monarch’s don’t return?

Don’t worry, local filmmaker Bob Pacelli has a solution.  Let’s just scatter as many eucalyptus trees as we can find into the grove to attract more butterflies.

In desperation, Pacelli came up with a plan: Find boxed trees — preferably blue gum eucalyptus — around 20 feet high and place them at strategic spots to help shelter the incoming monarchs. But the city has been slow to respond, Pacelli said. One official, Pacelli said, wrongly accused him of stepping on a butterfly, a violation of city code. No charges were filed.

For those paying attention, yes, the city council of Pacific Grove has a law on the books that imposes a fine of $1,000 on anyone who molests a butterfly.  Good things monarchs don’t roost in catholic churches.

Nowhere in this article is the obvious pointed out.  Eucalyptus trees are NOT NATIVE to the United States.  Yes, they belong down under with koalas and shrimp on the barbie (sorry).  The trees were introduced around 1853 in the hopes they would be a miracle tree for lumber and other products.  Sadly, no one tested the theories before letting the tree loose in our landscape, and it has become a dangerous pest.  These trees evolved with fire and they have come to truly embrace it.  The long peeling bark flakes off into floating torches that carry the flames to the canopy, and the oils within the tree are highly flammable – so much so that burning trees can literally explode.  Here in California things that are extremely flammable are usually frowned upon, especially since most of our population lives in a tinderbox (seriously, a golfer last week set off a blaze when his club struck a rock and the spark couldn’t be put out fast enough!)  Yet somehow the eucalyptus is protected in many cities. Yes, it could cost you a fine of $500 just to remove a small tree in the city of Santa Cruz.  Down in Santa Barbara, where I used to live for a few years, people rally by the thousands to save their precious eucalyptus.  It seems to me that residents of places with more money and more sun have inversely fewer braincells to put to use.  I did come across this one article (where I pulled the 1853 date from), that discusses the profane nature eucalyptus love.  The author is on the right track, but I don’t think euc groves serve as “monarch sinks” – where butterflies roost only to be blown out to sea during winter storms.  Extensive monitoring projects would have long ago pointed that out if it were the case.

So what did the monarchs do before 1853?  That’s a hard question to answer since to my knowledge there are no reports of trees full of butterflies from early settlers.  You would think that it might have been mentioned by someone like John Muir.  But, one possibility is that the monarchs were here all along – just roosting in stands of Monterey pine and other natives.  The pines don’t seem to have the same density as the eucalyptus, so these roosting colonies may not have been very impressive.  Roosting may have even been limited to warmer years or when fewer storms pounded our coast.  Possibility two is that the monarchs were NOT here in northern/central California before 1853.  Most likely the monarchs roosted in the warm coastal areas of southern California and Baja – but with the introduction of the eucalyptus, capitalized on the better shelter tree and branched northwards.

So what should be done?  I am all for the removal of eucalyptus statewide, including in the precious monarch groves.  So what if the monarchs don’t reappear?  Actually, this year would be one of the best to eradicate the eucalyptus because monarch numbers are down a whopping 90%!  Fewer returning monarchs need fewer trees (there seems to be a logical fallacy implied above that having or planting more trees will attract more butterflies – sorry, if they are down 90% then all the eucalyptus in the world won’t attract more butterflies).  Now would be the perfect opportunity to replace invasives with native pines.  I will close with a quote by Ansel Adams, stolen from the article I link to above (the anti-euc one).

I cannot think of a more tasteless undertaking than to plant trees in a naturally treeless area, and to impose an interpretation of natural beauty on a great landscape that is charged with beauty and wonder and the excellence of eternity.

4 comments to Monarch Madness

  • Couldn’t agree more, and what a great closing quote. It’s sad how many people cannot see beauty in a treeless landscape – the world must be a very boring, ugly place to them.

  • This post caught my eye, because I live in Pacific Grove. Folks here seem to have more time and money than common sense; the local paper is filled every issue with concerns about the monarch “sanctuary” complete with massive, spendy adverts to solicit donations for trees. Some quick comments: 1) Our local monarchs don’t spend any time in Mexico – that’s the eastern N.A. population 2) there are several hundred known monarch overwintering sites along CA’s coast, a little more than “dozens” 3) I feel badly the old woman died, but her family shouldn’t have been out during a major storm! 4) I wonder how the Ventana Society got around the molestation charge in order to tag butterflies the past few years 5) to truly help the local monarch population, perhaps the city’s public works should stop weeding out all the milkweed in town… eh-hem.

    • I was just up at the LepSoc meeting in Washington – and emerging data seems to show that we do have western monarchs that DO go all the way south. There is a famous slide with arrows of eastern monarchs going to mexico and western ones going to CA – this was quickly shot down by everyone at the meetings when it appeared on someone’s presentation.

      Basically, tagged monarchs from CA have shown up in Mexico – and now they are trying to do stable isotope studies to see if we can get a better idea of what % this actually is.

      And you’re right about those sites! The Xerces society said over 200 – lot more than my dozens haha.

  • Good to know. I swear Ventana once had a website page up that listed over 300 sites. Perhaps, similarly to the hullabaloo over orchids, they don’t want to advertise locations. Thanks, Chris.