Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Feb. 2.
Some of my most vivid memories of growing up in Ventura County are from second grade — mostly thanks to my teacher that year. She rode a motorcycle, she wore those quintessentially ’90s sundresses, she made learning whimsical, and she put together the best field trips. She was basically Ms. Frizzle without the child endangerment.
One excursion brought us to a nearby park, where we took in a spectacle still fresh in my mind today: a multitude of monarch butterflies draping tree branches and fluttering around in a cascade of regal orange.
But the butterfly fun didn’t stop there; from a tent in the classroom, we witnessed the monarch’s full life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to winged insect. The brave among us got to stand inside as the monarchs swirled around us.
Biologist Emma Pelton has a similar memory from her childhood in Wisconsin. Her kindergarten class also had a monarch tent, giving her an early introduction to the “big, showy neotropical butterfly.”
“Monarchs can be anywhere, so everyone has access to them,” said Pelton, who studies Western monarchs extensively in her role with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
“Part of why they’re so beloved [is] because they’re magical,” she added. “So many people … have these strong histories and connections to them because they learned about them as kids.”
The ’90s were a great time to be a second-grader — and a monarch butterfly — in the Golden State. Millions of the insects migrated to the California coast each winter to escape the cold in regions to the north and east.
But the population plummeted through the late 1990s and into the 2010s. We know that thanks to annual butterfly counts, which Pelton coordinates and the Xerces Society leads.
The annual Thanksgiving Count, which takes place over a three-week period around the holiday, involves more than 250 volunteers and various regional partners coordinating counts at hundreds of monarch cluster sites from Mendocino County down into Baja California. There are more than 400 known sites where monarchs cluster along the West Coast, Pelton said.
“This specific project is so powerful, because it’s really become the premier status … that we use to understand the size of the Western monarch populations because they conveniently cluster and we can go count them,” Pelton said. “The fact that they show up in trees, we can get a good estimate — it’s really pretty cool and pretty unique in the insect world.”
So how exactly does one go about counting all those butterflies? Pelton broke down the process:
“Typically folks are using binoculars and looking up into the trees, going out with a buddy… You’re learning to really have that eye and estimate how many butterflies you’re seeing. And if there’s just a few, it’s usually not that difficult to count them really precisely. If there are thousands, that’s where having those skills to really estimate well and have a buddy to check your work make sure you found them all [is key].”
That can get a bit tricky when the butterflies start flying around, which they tend to do once temperatures hit 55 degrees Fahrenheit and their flight muscles warm up enough to flap away from the cluster. That’s why monarch counters like to get an early start.
“If it’s sunny and warm, you’re gonna have a really hard time counting them,” Pelton said. “We’re not birders — you don’t get up at 5. but you’d probably have to get up at 7 to go get an accurate count.”
Counting butterflies isn’t a picnic, though — especially for first-timers.
“Your arm muscles start to shake if you hold your binoculars up at an angle for an hour,” Pelton said.
For her, there’s magic in the fact that “there are a whole bunch of folks that get out early in the day and go count bugs.” She also loves helping make Californians more aware of the “miraculous, smaller migration” on display all over the state.
“I’m always amazed how people can be right under a cluster and not see it. One of our coordinators use the great analogy [that] they’re little drab Doritos. If you don’t really have the vision for it, they’re drab Doritos up in a tree. But if it’s warm, and they’re flying around, it becomes really magical… Then people really see it and appreciate it and get it.”
So how many monarchs did counters spot last year?
2022’s tally was more than 335,000 monarchs — a promising jump from the nearly 250,000 butterflies counted in 2021. And it’s a notable rebound from the previous three years, in which each annual count netted fewer than 30,000 butterflies, Pelton said. Researchers can “breathe a sigh of relief,” but she noted that the population is still a fraction of what it was in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Our volunteer effort has been going up, up, up. We’re getting more people, we’re counting more sites — I think we’re doing it more rigorously, and that number is not budging,” she said. “We’re looking harder, we’re trying harder, and we’re not getting more butterflies.”
Researchers trace the monarch’s decline to a few key challenges, namely humans.
Habitat destruction is one problem. As more coastal developments pop up, more tree groves with limited legal protections are being cut down, Pelton said. That’s intensified by the fact that monarchs mostly cluster in non-native eucalyptus trees, which have splintered the conservation community.
Pelton also pointed to a “increased reliance on pesticides,” which has decimated the milkweed and flowering plants the monarchs rely on in different parts of their life cycle.
Then there’s climate change — “the icing on the cake,” Pelton explained, with more extreme storms and droughts “[pushing] the struggling population even further.”
So what’s being done to protect the dwindled monarch population? Right now the fate of the species is in “a funky limbo zone,” Pelton said, as biologists wait on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to add monarchs to its threatened or endangered list. That’s slated to happen next year, according to the department.
While Central California hosts the largest monarch clusters, some do fly down to Southern California. Thousands visited Hermosa Beach last year, which Pelton said was a first in their reporting.
“We don’t always know why they show up where they show up,” she said. “Sometimes they surprise us.”
If you’re curious where monarchs are taking their winter vacations, there’s an interactive map you can explore, based on the butterfly counters’ site visits.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.
Costco is known for its bulk bargains and that greasy, delicious pizza. Now the big-box retailer wants to get into the housing market. A new location proposed for South L.A. includes plans for 800 apartment units above the warehouse store, with about 23% for low-income tenants. Los Angeles Times
A note for local radio listeners: L.A.’s most popular FM public radio station is getting a rebrand. KPCC is changing its name to LAist 89.3, taking the title from the digital brand it acquired in 2018 (which I previously worked and wrote for). Los Angeles Times
Check out “The Times” podcast for essential news and more
These days, waking up to current events can be, well, daunting. If you’re seeking a more balanced news diet, “The Times” podcast is for you. Gustavo Arellano, along with a diverse set of reporters from the award-winning L.A. Times newsroom, delivers the most interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
California Democrats are taking another crack at rewriting the state’s concealed-carry gun law. A measure was drafted last year in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down restrictive concealed-carry laws, but it failed to pass due to Democratic infighting in the state Assembly. “Gun safety saves lives. More guns, more lives lost,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Wednesday. “We fell short last year … that’s not going to happen this year.” Los Angeles Times
Last month, congressional Republicans on the House oversight committee wrote a letter to California, New York and Pennsylvania, demanding answers about rampant unemployment fraud during the pandemic. Golden State officials responded last week, pointing the finger at former President Trump. San Francisco Chronicle
CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING
Famous trial lawyer Tom Girardi, better known to some for his supporting role on “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” has been indicted on fraud charges in two states. Prosecutors in L.A. and Chicago allege Girardi swindled more than $18 million from clients whose loved ones had been killed or who’d endured catastrophic injuries. Los Angeles Times
An L.A. swindler drove a yellow Lamborghini and posed as a weed mogul as he fleeced friends, his dentist and scores of others in a brazen series of scams. Michael Finnegan chronicles the criminal career of David Bunevacz, who “disarmed a long line of marks, dazzling them with stories of how they too could make a fortune in pot.” Los Angeles Times
HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
How do scientists study atmospheric rivers? Soaring above them in a high-tech jet, of course. Times reporter Ian James climbed aboard as meteorologists tracked last month’s parade of storms. Los Angeles Times
When an mpox outbreak struck California, community clinics and LGBTQ health centers acted fast to provided thousands of vaccines. Many of those cash-strapped organizations are still waiting for millions in state and federal reimbursements. CalMatters
The outdoor art installation Desert X returns to the Coachella Valley next month. Organizers say it will feature international artists from Europe, North America and South Asia — and some pieces will require audience participation. Desert Sun
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Today’s landmark love comes from Debra Jensen of Albion: the deceptively named Clear Lake in aptly named Lake County.
The largest freshwater lake entirely in California is beautiful and tragic. It’s ancient — probably 2 million years or more. People and abundant wildlife flourished on its shores for millennia. Then came the influx: Wetlands drained for agriculture; toxic sedimentation from mining; DDT dumps (more than once!) to control gnats that bothered tourists. Imagine a huge functional freshwater lake cycling massive amounts of water right in the middle of California! It’s now designated an impaired water body under the federal Clean Water Act. Kids shouldn’t swim in it. Eat the bass at your own risk.
What are California’s essential landmarks? Fill out this form to send us your photos of a special spot in California — natural or human-made. Tell us why it’s interesting and what makes it a symbol of life in the Golden State. Please be sure to include only photos taken directly by you. Your submission could be featured in a future edition of the newsletter.
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