Since the 1980s, scientists have tracked a more than 95 percent decline of Western monarch butterflies, arguably the most recognizable of its kind with symmetrical black and orange wings. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in 2020 cataloged fewer than 2,000 butterflies during its annual volunteer-powered Thanksgiving Count. But during the most recent event at the end of 2021, something phenomenal happened: Volunteers stationed at overwintering sites stretching from Mendocino to San Diego counted nearly 250,000 Western monarchs, a hopeful increase but one that still doesn’t compare to the millions counted in the 1980s or remove them from the endangered species list.
“It inspired cautious optimism among scientists because last year things looked really grim,” says Isis Howard, Xerces Society’s endangered species conservation biologist. “I think a lot of us were really worried that we might not see any this year.”
While Western and Eastern monarchs are the same species, they’re separate populations that migrate to different areas. Eastern monarchs make their way to Mexico at the end of the year, whereas Western monarchs overwinter along the West coast.
So far, scientists have a few hypotheses about the Western monarch’s uptick—temperature, rainfall, food availability, etcetera—but it’s going to take a few years for them to collect enough evidence to prove one. Regardless, scientists see this year as an opportunity to double down on conservation efforts to save the monarchs from the brink of extinction.
Here are four ways that you can help support the longevity of the symbolic and ecologically significant Western monarch butterfly.