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Proposed habitat in Heisler Park aims to support threatened migrating monarch butterflies

By SARA HALL

A proposed special habitat within a local park for North America’s arguably most beloved butterfly was presented at a city meeting this week.

The Recreation Committee heard and unanimously supported a proposal for a monarch butterfly garden in a small area at Heisler Park during their meeting Monday (June 7). 

Plans ask for native milkweed to be planted to support the popular pollinators that migrate through the region.

“I’d be willing to do thumbs up [to this project] right now. It doesn’t sound invasive, it’s very usable, it’s very achievable,” said committee member Anna Cathleen Greiner. “Who could be against butterflies?”

“I just can’t imagine people not getting behind this,” agreed committee member Roger Kempler.

Volunteers hope to create a butterfly garden and conservation sanctuary for monarch butterflies in an approximately 200-square-foot area at the park, on a sloped space slightly east of the whale sculpture.

A pollinator garden would fit in nicely in the area, said Laura Ford, local resident and founder of Pollinator Protection Fund of Laguna Beach (a nonprofit formally organized last month), when she presented the idea on Monday. 

The slightly sloped space was chosen because it already has irrigation, is in need of some more planting, and is a good location for interaction with the public, she explained. 

“Laguna Beach has always been a leader in the arts and natural beauty, and this initiative is a great way to encourage a more supportive relationship with our environment through action and education,” Ford said. “Pollinators are of critical importance to our environment and, right now, the western monarchs are in urgent need of our help.”

Monarch butterflies’ current status warrants being listed as “endangered,” but is precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in December following an extensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process. With this decision, the monarch becomes a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and its status will be reviewed each year until it is no longer a candidate.

Proposed habitat Mary Hurlbut

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

A monarch butterfly in Laguna Beach

“While this work goes on, we are committed to our ongoing efforts with partners to conserve the monarch and its habitat at the local, regional, and national levels,” FWS Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a statement in December. “Our conservation goal is to improve monarch populations, and we encourage everyone to join the effort.”

The western population located in California declined from about 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 in 2019, according to FWS.

Just a few decades ago the monarchs had a vibrant habitat all along the California coast, Ford said on Monday, but recently there has been a very steep decline. 

“They are seriously at great risk,” Ford said. “We must take action now to save the western monarch migration.”

Monarch butterflies, as a species, overwinter here on the local coastline, Ford said.

Each fall, monarchs migrate to central Mexico and some parts of the Southern California coast, where they overwinter in large clusters on trees. In spring, they return north and the females lay eggs on milkweeds, the only plant on which monarch larvae will feed. 

The population that winters along the California coast hit a low of less than 2,000 butterflies last year, a 99.9 percent decline since the 1980s, according to The Xerces Society, a nonprofit environmental organization that focuses on the conservation of invertebrates.

“This critically low number follows two years with fewer than 30,000 butterflies – the previous record lows – indicating that the western monarch butterfly migration is nearing collapse,” a Xerces press release reads.

These dramatic numbers were revealed late last year after results from the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count were announced. The annual count assesses the number of monarch butterflies overwintering at groves of trees on the Pacific Coast of California and Northern Baja. 

The primary drivers of decline are loss of overwintering, breeding, and migratory habitat in California, and pesticide use, according to Xerces officials.

“The pollinators, not only the monarchs but the bees and everything, it’s a crisis out there, it really is,” said committee Chair Michele Hall.

The Heisler Park garden will aim to raise awareness and educate the public, Ford explained. Signage is proposed in the garden that will provide information about the western monarch butterflies, their significance in California and the ecosystem, their life cycle, and what people can do to help protect the species.

Proposed habitat Laura Ford

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Courtesy of Laura Ford

Resident Laura Ford releases a monarch butterfly in Laguna Beach

The educational component is invaluable, Kempler said, considering how many people visit the popular park. 

There’s been a lot of discussion about the negative impact of tourists, but this can be a positive influence, Hall said. Visitors to Heisler Park can learn about the decimated population of monarchs and how to create their own little habitat within the urban development of Orange County, she said. 

“The signage is probably the most important thing because not only are we trying to create a habitat but we’re trying to educate people to go home and do this in their own back yards,” Hall said. 

Hall and several other committee members noted their own plans for planting the native milkweed in their own gardens.

The focus at Heisler Park will be on California milkweed, which is a native plant and part of the pre-existing ecosystem, confirmed Michael Russell Ford, Laura Ford’s husband who supported the presentation on Monday.

Milkweed is the plant that will make the biggest difference, he said. It’s the one plant that monarch caterpillars can eat and adult butterflies lay their eggs upon.

Ford described the garden plan, created by landscape architect James Dockstader, that also suggests other possible nectar options to consider for the butterflies, including California poppy, golden yarrow, hollyhocks, island snapdragons, seaside daisies, and western redbud.

Laura Ford emphasized the importance of planting native California milkweed, as opposed to the more generic tropical milkweed (commonly found in commercial garden shops). Tropical milkweed works, but it needs to be significantly cut back in winter, otherwise it could transmit a debilitating parasite causing the monarchs to become ill and die.

The protozoan ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) can cause them to die as caterpillars or, during the chrysalis stage, the protozoan eats away at them and they emerge partially deformed, Ford explained during a phone interview on Tuesday with Stu News Laguna.

“It’s very sad to see,” Ford said. 

One way to combat this is to really cut back tropical milkweed in winter (she suggested by October), or, the best way, is to plant California native milkweed in the first place.

There are also specific native California milkweeds that grows better in coastal areas, she added, which is what they’d use for Heisler Park.

In terms of resources, there would be minimal or zero cost to the city, Michael Russell Ford said. They are relying on private resource funding for the initial kickoff, including a GoFundMe campaign, backstopped by the Pollinator Protection Fund of Laguna Beach, and a volunteer effort. The total estimated cost of the project is $3,500.

“A lot of people in the community are very interested in the idea and supporting it,” he said.

Ongoing costs associated with the project would include general maintenance and upkeep of the plants and environment, as well as replacement of the milkweed if it gets too patchy. 

Proposed habitat concept plan

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Rendering by James Dockstader/Courtesy of City of LB

The concept plan for a proposed garden habitat in Heisler Park, which aims to support monarch butterflies

Committee members also discussed expanding the program to other areas in the city.

As they work on this space at Heisler, there is an opportunity to explore a larger, scalable project to plan for more habitats throughout the city, Greiner noted. 

“I look forward to the opportunity for learning some lessons and trying to scale that in a way that’s meaningful to the population…in terms of sustainability, not just limping along for the immediate short-term, but planning for some level of thriving and survivability,” Greiner said. 

“That’s our dream,” Laura Ford replied. “To increase the scale of the awareness so we can protect these incredible creatures…They are iconic and phenomenal pollinators, and they are also very inspiring and beautiful, an all-around wonderful creature. And we want to support the whole ecosystem of pollinators because they are the basis of all life.”

Ford has native milkweed at her own home, along with a custom frame they made for the caterpillars, who have been feeding, entering the chrysalis stage, and hatching right on her balcony. Ford has been releasing the butterflies at the South Laguna Community Garden Park, setting number 13 free on Tuesday morning. They have about 20 remaining in their makeshift habitat.

One butterfly they released met a mate within five minutes, Ford said. 

“It was very uplifting because that’s kind of the goal,” she said.

On Tuesday, Ford said she’s always loved butterflies and it was always a special occasion to see a monarch. She wants to do her part to help the population thrive again. 

“My inspiration came straight from the heart,” Ford said. 

It was wonderful to be met with such positivity and support for the proposal, she added.

“As a community if we can start planting milkweed we can establish a habitat for western monarchs,” Ford said, “and keep them along our coastline forevermore.”