The Fight to Bring Monarchs Back

A monarch butterfly caterpillar crawls along a milkweed leaf.

It’s not a pretty picture: Malibu used to be home to three of the top 50 overwintering sites for monarch butterflies back in 1997 when annual monarch counts first began. The butterflies made their home from October until March primarily at Encinal Canyon, Leo Carrillo State Beach and Busch Drive at Pacific Coast Highway.

In 2014, Encinal had a population of 97 monarchs, down 96.1 percent from 2001 (meaning there were more than 2,400 monarchs counted 20 years ago). Leo Carrillo had a population of 35, down 97 percent, and Busch Drive had 417, down 91.2 percent. As of last Thanksgiving, 2020, the results were devastating—Busch and Leo Carrillo had zero monarchs (Encinal wasn’t counted). 

Cat Darst of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service said recent predictions put the western monarch’s probability of extinction over the next 30 years at 92 to 95 percent. 

And don’t count on the government to help. Last November, the Superior Court of Sacramento County sided with agricultural groups and determined that the state has no legal authority to protect insects under the California Endangered Species Act.

At the national level, in December 2020, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that listing the monarch under the Endangered Species Act was “warranted, but precluded by higher priority listing actions.”

No, the butterflies aren’t gone entirely yet. Some were spotted last winter at Legacy Park and Las Flores Canyon Park. But they are becoming exceedingly rare. This has become the story across the country and grassroots efforts are organizing to try to bring them back. 

Why are monarchs in peril?  Experts point to multiple factors, with one being development that bulldozes and destroys native milkweed, which is the only plant on which monarchs will lay their eggs and the only plant their caterpillars will eat. A big part of the blame also falls on pest control companies and pesticide drift, which kills monarchs as well the plants they need to survive. The worst of the pesticides for monarchs contain glyphosate (which goes by the name brand Roundup) or neonicotinoids, according to the nonprofit Xerces Society.

The nonprofit Santa Monica Mountains Fund teamed up with local monarch educators, activists, field scientists and native plant horticulturists last weekend to offer information on how individuals can help save the monarchs; nearly 500 area locals tuned into the online event.

According to Bob Allen, a Southern California entomologist, botanist and author, the most important things people can do to help are preserve habitat, never use pesticides, and plant native milkweed and nectar-producing flowers.

Narrow leaf milkweed is the single most important host plant for Monarch butterflies, but two other native milkweeds are also good: California milkweed and Woolly-pod milkweed. 

Seeds and plants can be purchased online and at some nurseries. A Monarch Starter Kit is available from the nonprofit Theodore Payne Foundation store website,

If planting milkweed seeds, Antonio Sanchez, manager of the SAMO native plant nursery, said to start them in March or April. Soak the seeds overnight in warm water before planting a quarter-inch into the soil.

Allen recommended buying or planting a minimum of five milkweed plants, because just planting one or two isn’t enough for a monarch to find it. He uses simple clay pots in a somewhat shaded area (the plant probably grows best in full sun, but recent studies indicate that monarchs tend to lay eggs on shaded plants more often).  

He noted that, “Milkweed gardeners should be prepared for the plants to be eaten by Monarch caterpillars.” The milkweed should be cut back from November until March to prevent monarchs from laying eggs at the wrong time of year and to discourage parasites.

For gardeners who want milkweed and nectar plants grown in the garden rather than in pots, experts suggest putting them in “a naturalistic meadow planting” with the advice that “milkweeds are a little slow and might take one to two years to come to full size, bloom and establish a root system, and perhaps two to three years to establish a colony.”

Darst and several other speakers cautioned gardeners to buy only pesticide-free plants from nurseries, because many commercial plant growers “dip plants in pesticide before you buy them, which will poison butterflies and caterpillars.” In addition, “Once those plants are planted, the pesticide spreads to other plants through the soil.”

Angela Laws, PhD, with the Xerces Society, emphasized that monarch habitat can be created even in small spaces, and can be done as a group project not only in yards, but also in parks, schools, offices, churches, abandoned lots, rights of way, under power lines and on farms.

Her group is working with Leo Carrillo State Park to “improve monarch management,” and also supply plants for projects in natural areas.

“When you create monarch habitat, it also supports other pollinators,” she said.