This is how California can save monarch butterflies

A Monarch butterfly feeds on a Duranta flower. Its population has plummeted as its habitat has been reduced.
A Monarch butterfly feeds on a Duranta flower. Its population has plummeted as its habitat has been reduced. AP

It’s almost certain that California’s monarch butterfly population will continue to fall, an estimated 95 percent since the 1980s.

The latest winter count found the population at a new low, despite more survey takers. The butterflies that recently clustered on pines and eucalyptus trees along the California coast have begun migrating northeastward in search of milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs and for caterpillars to feed. But each year, milkweed becomes harder and harder to find, due to extensive herbicide use, climate change and other impacts.


As a Californian and a conservationist, I’m gravely concerned, but I’ve also got some ideas.

First, we need a solution that is resilient to climate change. When a single wildfire can wipe out an entire preserve, we need 21st century solutions that are more dynamic and flexible. Fortunately, there’s an app for that.

My colleagues at Environmental Defense Fund have collaborated with conservationists, academics, agricultural groups and state agencies to develop a Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, dubbed an Airbnb for butterflies, to crowd-source the creation and protection of monarch habitat from large-scale landowners across the country. Early participants in the program will be making new homes for butterflies along the eastern and western migration routes starting this spring.

Now we need funding to put projects on the ground at record scale and pace. We need a monarch rescue fund. On Feb. 14, Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Monterey Bay Democrat, introduced legislation that provides money and technical assistance to California applicants.

It’s exactly the type of urgent action we need from state and local leaders, but it’s just a start. Our analysis concludes it will take at least several hundred million dollars over the next decade to double the monarch population. That’s what we’ll need to pay for native milkweed seeds and to pay landowners for restoration and maintenance, including prescribed fire, seasonal mowing and milkweed planting.

It’s a good thing Americans love monarchs, so much they think it’s worth spending $4 billion to save them. Concerned citizens can kick start the monarch recovery fund by donating to the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, which will support restoration projects at key sites already identified in California, Missouri and Texas.

But to achieve the amount of habitat needed – millions of acres of native milkweed and wildflowers – we will need all hands on deck. That includes food companies and agribusiness, chemical and seed companies, state farm bureaus and wildlife agencies and philanthropic organizations and foundations.

We can save this iconic butterfly from extinction, but we have to put our money where the monarchs are.

David Festa is senior vice president of ecosystems programs at Environmental Defense Fund. He is based in San Francisco and can be contacted at