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The Climate Connection: What’s a butterfly to do?
The Climate Connection

The Climate Connection: What’s a butterfly to do?

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Does it seem like everyone is talking about western monarch butterflies these days? At garden centers, farmers markets, and government meetings, they are a hot topic.

Monarchs have always been special to us. Their striking coloring, their inspiring migration, and the way they flock together in spots like Pacific Grove continue to captivate us. We see ourselves in the story of monarchs.

Monarchs also have an important role to play for the nature that surrounds and supports us. They are spectacular pollinators of a variety of flowering plants – helping many of our beloved native plants make seed and complete their life cycle. Songbirds go crazy for their caterpillars – which provide an important food source.

The threat from population decline

Unfortunately, monarchs have been on our minds lately for a much sadder reason. The western monarch butterfly population has declined over 99% in the past 20 years. Monarchs are stressed by climate change, habitat loss, pesticides, and diseases, which are all combining to make life in the west almost impossible. The actions we take in the next several years will be critical to the survival of this iconic species.

The good news is, when we take steps to help monarchs, the benefits are multiplied. All kinds of beneficial pollinators like the same habitat as monarchs, which means we build security for the approximately one-third of our food supply that is created by pollinating insects.

Taking action locally

The Napa County Resource and Conservation District (RCD) was recently awarded a Monarch Restoration Grant from the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts to help farmers and ranchers add monarch habitat to their land. Currently, Napa RCD is working with 17 grape growers to plant monarch-friendly natives this year while other growers are on a wait list for when more funding becomes available.

Steve Rasmussen, owner of Palisades Vineyard in Calistoga, said, “With RCD’s help, we plan to plant 175 native plants along the banks of Horns Creek, the creek that flows through our canyon," adding that this project "dovetails perfectly with several other initiatives we’ve undertaken on our ranch: restoring the creek to prevent erosion and silting that could flow into the Napa River, supporting insects that benefit our vineyard integrated pest management program, and working with the RCD and the Calistoga Joint Unified School District to create outdoor educational opportunities for Calistoga school children.”

He added,  “The monarch project combines our interest in land stewardship with the school district’s interest in science education while it furthers the important function of the RCD in supporting conservation and responsible agriculture in the county—a win-win-win.”

Napa RCD is relying on the advice of researchers, including the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, who have determined the most important strategies and most important locations for bringing back the western monarch. Napa County is part of “Priority Restoration Zone 1” which is the early breeding zone of California.

What is the Climate Connection?

Restoring pollinator habitat is crucial to building climate resiliency. Napa residents know very well that we are living the effects of climate change and seeing more extreme weather events. Everything we do to help monarchs will help lots of native insects and wildlife.

Many pollinator-friendly plants are perennials, which means they sequester carbon and build soil health. Providing habitat with ample floral resources that bloom throughout the entire season supports large, stable, and diverse pollinator communities which will better withstand bad years and extreme events.

Finally, creating a low-maintenance native pollinator planting means you will make your landscape much more resilient to drought and heat.

Even if you don’t own a vast amount of land and the extent of your garden is a few flower pots on a stoop, you can do something to help the monarchs. One or two plants in many locations can add up to great habitat.

Locals like the Western Monarch Society of Napa County or Napa RCD can help you find the right plants for your spot. Western Monarch Society of Napa County has already given thousands of plants away for free at local farmers markets this year and has plans to give out more next spring.

Actions You Can Take to Help

• Plant native, insecticide free milkweed species such as A. eriocarpa, A. cordifolia, A. speciosa; A. fascicularis, Asclepias vestita, A. californica

• Plant native insecticide-free flowering nectar plants that are available throughout the season. Local organizations like Napa RCD and Western Monarch Society of Napa County can provide resources to help create an appropriate plant list.

• Do not plant non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), which is unfortunately widely available and spreads the pathogen (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) that can kill monarchs.

• Avoid mowing, burning, and grazing when breeding monarchs are present.

•  Protect your plants from pesticide and herbicide drift, especially neonicotinoids and other systemic insecticides.

Learn all about San Diego Zoo's expansion where you can be immersed in thousands upon thousands of butterflies.

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Ruby Stahel is the conservation project manager at the Napa County Resource and Conservation District (Napa RCD). She has an M.S. in Conservation Biology and a deep interest in increasing biodiversity on agricultural landscapes.

Napa Climate NOW! is a local non-profit citizens’ group advocating for smart climate solutions based on the latest climate science, part of 350 Bay Area. Like, comment, and share our daily Facebook and Instagram posts @napaclimatenow ! or visit us at http://napa.350bayarea.org

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