The western monarch butterfly population has declined 99.4 percent since 1980. Last November, volunteers with Xerces Society, a Portland invertebrate conservation group, counted 28,429 monarchs at wintering sites along the coast of California.
In the 1980s, the count was nearly 4.5 million. That means that for every 160 monarch butterflies counted in 1980 there is one left today.
The western monarch report was widely reported in articles about an impending "insect apocalypse." But what most people probably don't know is that the nonprofit counting the butterflies is based in Portland. Xerces Society is now petitioning California legislators to enforce protection of western monarch breeding and wintering sites and pushing residents all along the West Coast to create more pollinator-friendly landscapes.
The only known migratory butterfly, monarchs travel up and down the Western seaboard, roosting in places like Santa Cruz and San Diego during cold, winter months.
Emma Pelton, the conservation biologist at Xerces leading the western monarch study, calls the species a "canary in the coal mine." Pelton says its decline should be an alarming wake-up call to preserve pollinators. "We've been whittling away at some of these populations for a while as we lose habitat with climate change and with pesticides," she says, "but now they seem to be collapsing."
A petition is in place to get monarchs listed as a federally protected species, Pelton adds, and Oregon legislators could help by disincentivizing the use of certain insecticides that kill monarchs.
"They're a huge keystone part of the ecosystem," she says. "If we lose them, we're going to lose more than I think we can imagine right now."