Pacific Grove benefits by one of those happy accidents of nature that gladden the heart, excite the imagination, and instruct the young. On a certain day… great clouds of orangy Monarch butterflies, like twinkling aery fields of flowers, sail high in the air on a majestic pilgrimage across Monterey Bay and land in the outskirts of Pacific Grove in the pine woods. – John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, 1954
The Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary appears to be a small forest oasis, a place of refuge and tranquility with a meandering path amid tall eucalyptus, pines and cypress trees. The city-owned property is part of a historic overwintering site for monarch butterflies, where hundreds of thousands of adult Danaus plexippus have visited for centuries. Over a century ago, human visitors began streaming in to see the wonder of nature, and tens of thousands still come annually to see the monarchs in P.G., which is also known as “Butterfly Town USA.”
On Sept. 5, the tranquility of the sanctuary was interrupted by the unrelenting ripping sound of a wood chipper and the whirring of a chain saw. A tree was being removed on private property in the neighborhood.
It was impossible for the group of about 30 people standing in a circle at the top of the sanctuary, located off of Ridge Road, not to notice the jarring sounds. They were gathered for an annual walkthrough, a time to inspect the location about a month before the monarchs were expected to arrive. All the sanctuary stakeholders were represented: elected city officials and paid staff; sanctuary volunteers; residents concerned about the sanctuary’s future; the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History; and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The trees of the sanctuary are where monarchs make their home over the winter – a place to keep warm and possibly find refuge from the wind. And because monarchs are insects not bound by human property lines, it isn’t just the 2.7-acre plot of city-owned land where the monarchs rest. They also cling to surrounding neighborhood trees. History has shown that when trees once frequented by the monarchs are trimmed dramatically or cleared away, the butterflies may stay away or come back in smaller numbers the following year.
The great cloud described by Steinbeck has today become a fluttering trickle. In 1997, when overwintering counts began, 45,000 monarchs were counted within the sanctuary. Last year, only 815. Overall, the Western migrating monarch population is dwindling to a worrisome level. Insect populations will rise or fall year to year depending on weather and other factors, but in recent years scientists say the population of Western monarchs declined to less than one percent of historic levels.
The species could be approaching a point of no return, entering into what scientists call an “extinction vortex.” The Eastern migrating population is down but doing “relatively well.” The Western population, meanwhile, is in a “danger zone,” says Emma Pelton, an endangered species biologist and Western monarch lead for the Xerces Society, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving invertebrates and their habitats.
Pelton says adding and retaining trees are key at the overwintering sites that line the coast, from Mendocino to Baja California, especially native Monterey cypress and Monterey pine and varieties of the nonnative eucalyptus. Yet in the background of the P.G. sanctuary walkthrough on Sept. 5, the wood chipper roared.
At one point, as if to allay the group’s fear, Pacific Grove Public Works Director Dan Gho interrupted remarks he was making to reassure them. “You hear a tree being taken down – which is all permitted out,” he said. “I went over and looked at it earlier today.”
Not everyone felt assured. There is a mistrust of the city by some residents who claim Pacific Grove has done a poor job of managing the sanctuary and the surrounding habitat. Actions taken by the city over the last decade make the preserve look more like a park for people instead of a nature preserve for monarchs, they say. Over the years a climate of political infighting between stakeholders has led to paralysis, and mixed results on conservation efforts.
Pelton, the scientist, speaking by phone from her office in Oregon, says the most important thing Butterfly Town can do to help butterfly habitat is stop fighting and get on the same page.
“There are a lot of politics and that can make things grind to a halt,” she says. “Pacific Grove has some ways to go with everyone being on board to gain consensus. There are a lot of voices and there are things that don’t happen, that should happen.”
For a long time Pacific Grove didn’t know what it had. Then gradually it was remarked that an increasing number of tourists were drawn to see the butterflies. Where there are tourists there is money, and it is a sin to let it drift away… Why, the symbol of Pacific Grove on its advertising is the monarch butterfly. – Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday
A month after the walkthrough, the streets of downtown Pacific Grove were lined with thousands of people on Oct. 5, a clear, crisp day. Locals and tourists were there for one of the city’s most popular events of the year, the Butterfly Parade.
Onlookers delighted at the sight of kindergartners from P.G. schools dressed in black and orange paper butterfly wings as they marched in a loop around downtown, joined by waves of kids in costumes – preschoolers first as larvae, older kids as otters, farmers, pioneers. Butterfly images were everywhere in town that day. Dogs, babies and adults of all ages were decked out in butterfly costumes, T-shirts, hats and long, flowy monarch wings.
The parade first began in 1939, to augment the crowds of visitors already showing up to see the monarchs each fall through winter. The kids in butterfly wings were as irresistible then as they are now. The tradition persisted and several years ago, an entire weekend of butterfly-related activities was added to what’s now called Butterfly Days. The parade is so ingrained in the town’s ethos, it’s common to hear residents who grew up there declare at public meetings, “I wore the butterfly wings,” as a way to prove their Pagrovian bonafides.
The parade visitors and weekend tourists who came throughout the overwintering season were money in the bank for businesses and the town’s coffers. The city and the Chamber of Commerce adopted the monarch symbol in logos and advertising, as did many businesses. Even today, butterfly images are seen all over town. Replicas hang on buildings and shops sell butterfly tourist memorabilia.
While it’s hard to know exactly how much tourism is due to the monarchs alone, there is one anecdote from a decade ago. In 2009, the city aggressively cut back a row of eucalyptus and trimmed other trees within the sanctuary out of safety concerns. A city official later admitted no experts were consulted before the trimming, which eliminated a needed windbreak and took away branches frequented by the monarchs. The city seemed driven in part by safety concerns, since five years earlier an 85-year-old woman was killed by a falling branch.
The event proved disastrous. In 2009 only 793 monarchs were counted, down from 17,866 the year before. Anger among residents over the trimming and plummeting butterfly population caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times. According to an August 2010 story, when tourists heard the monarchs failed to come back in the usual numbers, they themselves stayed away. Business for the period fell by 25 percent.
The Times described a City Council meeting attended by residents dressed in toy antennae wanting to know what the city was going to do about the sanctuary. During that meeting then-mayor Carmelita Garcia made a public apology for the trimming, calling it a “horrible mistake.”
More recent data shows that human visitors to the sanctuary are dwindling as the monarch population drops. According to the Museum of Natural History, during the 2017-18 season, more than 35,200 people were counted by docents. Last season, the number was 23,200.
The butterflies know exactly where they are going. In their millions they land on several pine trees – always the same trees. – Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday
The first detailed study of the town’s monarch overwintering visits was written in 1914 by Lucia Shepardson in her book, The Butterfly Trees. After 10 seasons of observations, Shepardson wrote that the “earliest authentic information” about overwintering in P.G. came around 1849. She theorized that the annual migration existed since “long before white men ever saw California.” (Pelton says a Russian expedition to San Francisco Bay noted sighting monarchs in that region around 200 years ago.)
Shepardson, an early version of a citizen scientist, estimated that “tens of thousands” of monarchs were visiting annually. Efforts to quantify the species started in the 1970s, but didn’t begin in earnest with the help of citizen scientists until 1997. The whys and hows of monarch migration, especially why they would come at almost the same time every year to the same trees, were a mystery to Shepardson. She called it, “absolutely unanswerable. It is a secret of Nature.”
More than a century later the monarch’s migration is still a mystery, Pelton says. Recent research suggests the monarchs may have a combination of biological clocks – one set in the brain and another in the antennae – that together make a compass the monarchs use with the sun and the Earth’s magnetic pull to stay on course. The migrating butterflies only live two to six weeks – laying eggs on milkweed along the way to create the next generation that takes up the migration – until fall when those born in late summer, the fourth generation, seek out protection from winter temperatures and live for six to eight months. In other words, when the monarchs return, they are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the butterflies from the year before.
Shepardson observed that the butterflies return to the same trees, sometimes the same branches, each year. How do these descendents know where to go? In 2011, scientists sequenced the monarch genome and discovered 273 DNA units. Do the overwintering butterflies leave behind genetic material that triggers a response in the next year’s descendents? It’s still an unknown.
The Western migrating monarchs are coming from the north and the Rocky Mountains where they spend summers. The migration reverses in spring. Pacific Grove’s overwintering site is considered significant in two ways, Pelton says. One, P.G. historically hosted a significant percentage of the migrating population, and two, because it is a popular tourist destination, it has become an important educational opportunity to tell the public the story of the monarchs and the threats they face.
Among the threats, the biggest may be climate change, Pelton says, pointing to the elements of climate change like increased wildfires, late winter storms and drought. Loss of habitat is also a major factor, as is the use of pesticides. Another issue facing monarchs is born out of the mistaken belief of some who believe they are helping monarchs by planting milkweed in coastal areas, the plant monarchs feed on during migration and where they lay their eggs in the spring and summer. Native milkweed is needed in the Central Valley, for example, but never within 10 miles of an overwintering site. Too close, and the monarchs will get confused and lay their eggs too early and their offspring won’t survive. And, Pelton adds, most of the milkweed sold in nurseries are nonnative tropical varieties, which can serve as a carrier of a parasite dangerous to monarch caterpillars.
There were two instances when the butterflies did not come to P.G. in the early 20th century, Shepardson wrote. Once was when blasting took place near the insects’ favorite trees in winter. They collectively flew off and failed to return the following year.
The second she calls “the greatest catastrophe in their history here.” The pine trees the monarchs had been visiting year after year were cut down in the summer in a mishap of communication by a new landowner unaware of the trees’ significance. “It began to be feared that they were gone, never to return,” she wrote. They did return, after two seasons of staying away.
As P.G. grew, the monarch habitat among the trees on private land kept shrinking. In the late 1980s, the land where the sanctuary now exists was slated for a housing development. Property owner Edna Diveley offered a 1-acre easement for the butterflies, which the City Council first accepted, then rejected, prompting Diveley to sue, according to newspaper reports. In 1990, voters approved a $1.2 million bond measure to purchase the land and after 16 months of negotiations with Diveley, the city purchased the property in 1992 for $1.4 million.
The difference between the sale price and what the city paid, $200,000, was made up with a grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board. When the city accepted the money, it also agreed to the covenants, conditions and restrictions of a conservation easement, dated July 1, 1992. Restrictions include no buildings, signs or fences, unless they replace pre-existing structures; no excavation of soil unless maintaining an existing footpath; no advertising; and “no removal, destruction or cutting of trees, shrubs or other vegetation except as necessary” for fire breaks, trails, prevention of disease and “other good husbandry practices approved by the state.”
As for Diveley, she agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for building three single-family homes next to the sanctuary.
“It’s a good deal for the butterflies; no longer do the monarchs have to worry about houses being there when they come back,” then-Councilmember Bud Nunn announced in March 1992 at a council meeting. The now-defunct The Pacific Grove Monarch newspaper reported that Nunn’s voice was quivering as he spoke. “The habitat is totally preserved.”
In 1924, I think it was, the butterflies did not come… At first there was panic in Pacific Grove, and then a blind anger set in and the citizens looked about for someone to blame. – Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday
The nearly catastrophic tree trimming of 2009 may have kept thousands of butterflies away that season, but it brought in numerous residents and organizations who volunteered to improve the sanctuary and help the monarchs into the future. It also brought in conflicting opinions, agendas and personalities.
One personality that proved to be a lightning rod was – and still is – Bob Pacelli, a 30-year resident, photojournalist and TV news filmographer. It’s common when talking to people both inside and outside of Pacific Grove to hear him referred to as the “rogue individual.” Even his biggest detractors concede Pacelli’s concerns come from a place of deep love for the monarchs – developed over two decades of watching and chronicling the insects through photos and film – but the way he goes about advocating for them is at times counterproductive.
A well-known clash between the city and Pacelli is documented in the 2015 documentary,Butterfly Town USA, recounting when he was investigated by Pacific Grove Police over allegedly damaging city irrigation lines. No charges were ever filed.
“He is a strong personality that sparks controversy, but the monarchs love him – I’ve watched them land on him,” says Frances Grate, a former member of the P.G. Beautification and Natural Resources Commission and one-time member of its monarch subcommittee. She doesn’t always agree with Pacelli, but considers him an ally in her own efforts to help the monarchs.
Before the controversy over damaged irrigation lines and other disagreements, it was Pacelli who came up with an idea in 2010 for a temporary fix for the damage done by the pruning the year before. He suggested bringing in dozens of boxed eucalyptus and positioning them to fill in the gaps. The idea had never been tried before in other overwintering sites, but eventually the city agreed to try the experiment and another resident donated the money needed to purchase the trees. Pacelli’s experiment worked: nearly 5,000 butterflies were counted that season. Over 12,000 came the next season. (The plan was repeated in the lead up to this year’s season; 15 boxed trees were distributed in September after residents donated money online.)
Meanwhile, the Great Recession was underway and the city laid off employees and scaled back services. A deal was struck between the city and the Museum of Natural History Foundation: The city would keep ownership of the museum building and the foundation would run the museum. Similarly, the city would maintain the monarch sanctuary, and foundation employees and volunteer docents would provide interpretation to visitors and facilitate educational programs.
Barbara Thomas, who joined the city’s Beautification and Natural Resources Commission in 2009, says the differing interests of city, museum and residents led to the sanctuary management crumbling. Disagreements and misunderstandings about issues like who is supposed to water newly planted trees or nectar plants have been ongoing, as well as complaints that the city does not follow the rules of the conservation easement nor of its paid consultant Stuart Weiss, of Creekside Science – although some residents reject Weiss’ recommendations and question why the city keeps employing him when the sanctuary, in their assessment, has gotten worse. At the walkthrough in September, Weiss pointed out that there are other reasons the monarchs aren’t coming to P.G., drought and climate change chief among them contributing to the overall decline of the species. P.G. Mayor Bill Peake says despite residents’ criticisms of Weiss, he believes the consultant is serving the city well.
One example of a past city misstep, according to Thomas, was a management plan proposed in 2012, that included the construction of wood platforms and picnic benches for use by museum programs and the public. The plan was abandoned after a representative of the Wildlife Conservation Board reminded city officials of conservation easement restrictions.
Grate, a master gardener, says earlier this year she “screamed” after museum docents planted a flower ideal for hummingbirds, but not for butterflies, in one of the beds, after the museum received a grant to plant native species in the sanctuary. To Grate, it was another example of competing interests not communicating or working together. The offending plant was removed. “There are a lot of personalities involved,” she says, “mine included.”
In July, controversy arose when the Department of Public Works began work on a bathroom that had to be halted. It was discovered the city failed to have a Native American monitor on site while digging took place in case ancestors’ remains or artifacts were discovered, under a California law that took effect in 2015.
It’s incidents like these that leave residents questioning the overall management of the sanctuary. Adding in a bathroom underscores in their minds that the priorities are for people, not monarchs.
Thomas, who hadn’t been to the sanctuary in a few years due to illness, visited when the bathroom was installed and says she was shocked to see the condition of the sanctuary and how much it looked more like a park than a protected habitat.
“I was so overcome, it was painful,” she says.
Pacific Grove appreciates the signal honor bestowed upon her by Nature, and cherishes these unusual and beautiful guests. – Lucia Shepardson, The Butterfly Trees
Jeanette Kihs, executive director of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, states plainly what others in Pacific Grove keep echoing.
“Everyone wants what’s best for the monarchs. No want wants to see less monarchs in Pacific Grove than in the past,” she says. “There’s not necessarily agreement on how to bring more monarchs back here.”
Mayor Peake asked Kihs and the current BRNC chair, Jean Anton, to include a monthly report by a museum docent at commission meetings to improve communication. His solution for the future of the sanctuary is providing “a respectful venue for a full range of public comment.” He says anyone who believes they have a better plan is welcome to submit one in writing to the city, and adds, “We do need to have follow through, I agree.” He expects a report about the sanctuary to come to council in January.
Thomas says more voices and plans aren’t going to bring the monarchs back.
“This is just one big tragedy,” Thomas says. “Every year there’s an excuse why something happened or why it didn’t. And this year’s excuse: ‘It’s all over the state, they’ve disappeared.’ Once again it’s no one’s fault. It’s everyone’s fault, if you ask me.”
At 87, Grate hasn’t given up hope for the sanctuary or the monarchs. Last month she and Pacelli met with a public works employee and the city’s volunteer coordinator about making sure the nectar beds are well tended. She sees it as a sign that the city will exert more authority over the sanctuary and coordinate efforts.
The efforts to save the monarchs and keep the sanctuary as their protected winter home are well worth it, says Pacelli.
“The point is, I was down there yesterday and there were a bunch of school children there,” Pacelli says as tears well up in his eyes. “There were a hundred or more monarchs flying all over and it was good.”
While some still hold out hope that the monarchs will continue their annual sojourn to P.G., others find themselves more pessimistic about the future. The monarch numbers within the sanctuary are disturbingly low this year, while other California sites are doing better. (Monarchs that gather off site are not counted; another official overwintering site is at the P.G. Municipal Golf Course.) On Nov. 21, the Western Monarch Count Resource Center reported that Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz was reporting 3,402 monarchs, compared to 1,802 documented in 2018 during the annual Thanksgiving Count.
On Nov. 29, the museum’s docents trained in counting monarchs performed the annual count inside the sanctuary, used by the Xerces Society as the official record of the health of each year’s migrating monarch population.
The week before, the count was 642, on that Friday, only 179 monarchs were counted inside the sanctuary. The weather was bad that week, and it’s possible the monarchs sought refuge elsewhere during the cold storms.
That nearly 500 butterflies disappeared in the bad weather is exactly the problem at the sanctuary, says Grate. There aren’t enough trees to give the butterflies a safe place to cluster together against the wind and the cold.
“It will be sad, very sad, with all the good effort that has been put into it to have the butterflies not come again,” Grate says.
Editor's Note: The print edition stated that the Western Monarch population had declined to 1.5 percent of historic levels. It's less than one percent, according to Xerces Society biologist Emma Pelton.