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Migrating Monarchs on the Move

Residents of Pacific Grove, Calif., have made their community a friendly home for swarms of colorful winter guests.

By Shira J. BossSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1997



PACIFIC GROVE, CALIF.

Perched on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula, about 125 miles south of San Francisco, is official Butterfly Town, USA.

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Picturesque Pacific Grove's population of 17,000 more than doubles from October to February each year with migrating monarch butterflies. They descend on the area for the same reason vacationers and retirees do: the ideal climate.

On Oct. 11, the annual Butterfly Parade - featuring schoolchildren dressed up in wings and antennae, in the half-century-old tradition - will again welcome the swarms of bright orange monarchs that instinctively flutter down from Canada to California and Mexico to spend warm winters in the same spots their ancestors did.

While other groves along the California coast are being destroyed by development, residents of Pacific Grove undertake tremendous efforts to preserve their two choice habitats.

"There's a strong love affair between the monarch butterfly and the people of Pacific Grove," says John Fischer, vice chairman of the city's natural resources committee. "I can't think of an issue that tops it for the community."

Since 1939, a city ordinance has prohibited "molesting a butterfly in any way." Swatting at or even touching one can lead to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.

In 1990, butterflies became a hot campaign issue for the mayor and three city council members who had voted to approve condominium development on a favorite spot of the monarchs - one of two remaining pine forest plots in the city. After a public uproar, they switched to a pro-butterfly platform. The citizens approved a tax increase referendum to buy the disputed land for $1.23 million to establish a sanctuary.

The 2.4-acre sanctuary, tucked into an expensive residential district, and the other wintering spot, near George Washington Park, are largely maintained by the insect advocate group Friends of the Monarchs.

Founded 10 years ago by residents concerned with preserving the monarch habitat, it has grown to 340 members. They raise funds by selling books and butterfly-motif gift items, and spend the money to educate the public about the butterfly and to improve the two habitats.

The butterflies demand a very specific microclimate that the city's foggy pine forest environment provides: moisture, protection from wind, diffused sunlight, moderate temperatures, and blossoming trees or plants. Slight alterations - for example a tree falling down - discourage the migrating insects from choosing a particular grove for their winter home.

"They're really, really picky," says Stuart Weiss, research associate at Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology in Palo Alto, Calif. Last winter, Dr. Weiss conducted a study of Pacific Grove's habitat and, along with a tree specialist, developed a vegetation plan to preserve it.

The community is currently divided over how to conquer the latest enemy of the butterflies: pitch canker, a disease that is ravaging the Monterey pine trees that make the Pacific Grove habitats unique (other groves in California have mostly eucalyptus trees). Purists want to continue to plant undiseased pine seedlings, hoping to restore a healthy pine forest. Others argue that the solution is to plant more eucalyptus trees, which the butterflies also love, but which are not native to the area.

Friends of the Monarchs meets monthly throughout the year to debate sanctuary strategy and plan work parties, where volunteers help plant, water, and trim trees, and with other grove maintenance.

Some docents are trained to serve as grove guides for out-of-town visitors.

"It's kind of a cathedral feeling when you get into the grove," says Ro Vaccaro, the president of the group. "People are so awestruck, it's a delight to answer their questions."

Activists also plant nectar gardens that serve as snack stations for the monarchs. Scientists have figured out that the butterflies are attracted by concentrated areas of yellow or purple, so the yards of Pacific Grove are lined with yellow daisies and marigolds, purple coneflowers, wild lilacs, and other nourishing plants.

"Compared to what they have to go through in Mexico, where there's very little to eat, it's fat city," says Dr. Weiss. Building up fat reserves helps give them the energy to fly home and for females to lay a large number of eggs.

Residents not only assist with the diet of their guests, but with both natural and man-made hazards. When the temperature drops below 55 degrees F., a butterfly's wings will not work. On the rare occasion that a storm knocks the butterflies to the ground - where they will die of cooler temperatures - docents have been trained to rescue them by cradling them in their hands and warming them with their breath so the insects can recover.

The monarchs will sometimes land in the street, oblivious to the hazards of being run over, so Friends of the Monarchs arranged for orange traffic signs during the winter months that show butterfly silhouettes and warn drivers: "Caution - Butterfly Zone."

In addition to individual efforts, scientists and conscientious citizens are pushing for legislation to protect the monarchs under the California Environmental Quality Act and Coastal Commission regulation. While Pacific Grove is the most proactive community, monarch preservation is becoming a popular issue around the state.

"Everyone loves them, they're such a symbol of hope and rebirth and renewal," says Ms. Vaccaro, who moved to Pacific Grove from the East Coast to be near the butterflies. "I kept thinking during the campaign of 1990, 'Thank goodness it's not the banana slug we're fighting for.' "