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Monarch butterflies: delicate and in need of our help

Most people call the monarch butterfly beautiful, exquisite or maybe even divine. But it's more like a sick eighth wonder of the world.

Consider its challenges:

In the last 20 years, the number of monarchs has declined by about 90%, according to sources. While there have been some minor recent increases, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still so concerned that it is considering putting the butterfly on the endangered species list.

There are so many things that work against the monarch.

Let's start close to home. They start out in backyards as dangerous looking caterpillars that unaware little boys squash for fun.

Assuming they do make it out of their squirming papoose, they fly around for four to six weeks trying to avoid spider webs and predator birds that can wipe out more than half them.

As delicate as they are, somehow the Eastern monarchs fly 2,500 miles to Mexico for winter. There, they are faced with declining habitat in the high-altitude oyamel fir tree forests of Michoacan.

A few Western monarchs hang out year-round in Southern California but not as many. You'll start seeing more of them soon as it warms up — perhaps. Some local monarch way stations include Norma Gibbs Park in Huntington Beach; Huntington Beach Central Park Amphitheater; Golden West College eucalyptus grove in Huntington Beach; Gum Grove Park in Seal Beach; Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley; San Clemente State Park; and Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

In an effort to help with the monarch's survival, the city of Laguna Beach gave $5,000 to the environmental group Transition Laguna. Leader Chris Prelitz recently organized a kickoff meeting to like-minded supporters. More information is at www.facebook.com/TransitionLaguna.

The first order of business was to draft an action plan that focused on education and identifying possible parcels of land where milkweed and nectar plants could be planted. The monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed.

"There have been some areas in our canyons that have been ravaged, basically, and need restoration," Prelitz said. "So restoring them with natives but also at the same time help attract the butterflies and help sustain them."

Prelitz has had conversations with groups like the Laguna Canyon Foundation, the Laguna Library monarch project, the Garden Club and others in Orange County to unite efforts.

The reason Prelitz likes this project is it's easy to understand. While the larger international issue about habitat is complex, the local efforts can have an immediate effect.

"If people get excited about the monarchs, and they or their kids start getting involved, and then you start educating them about the effects of pesticides and fertilizers, then they make better choices about what they put on their own lawns," he said. "More and more people are making better eco-choices."

A key to trying to organize the public is not overwhelming them with too much information or requests, Prelitz said.

"We really need to take care of everything, but this is one thing that they can get their arms around without going into eco-warrior overload," he said. "Right now there is so much stress in the world and so much that we're worried about. This could be just one little thing that we do on our watch that we help to make sure that this magnificent animal — and I look at it as one of the most incredibly best designed creations ever done — doesn't go back on the endangered species list."

While the group gets its activities organized, the butterflies will be coming out of their winter hibernation. Local nurseries will start stocking milkweed for those people who want to help right away.

Although milkweed is important, there are other requirements necessary for the survival of monarchs. A new study by Cornell University says flower nectar is probably more critical right now so that the monarchs have the energy to make it to Mexico.

Also, because of the tremendous distances, the butterflies need landscapes that are free of obstructions, insecticides and other hazards.

Finally, the forests in Mexico, which are only about the size of New York City, have been degraded by logging and human activities.

In general, butterflies are good indicators of a healthy ecosystem. They are remarkable pollinators and an important part of the food chain.

Their obvious benefit, of course, is that people just like them.

In fact, it's hard to think of monarch butterflies as insects. They are more like birds — fragile yet sturdy enough to fly thousands of miles.

When you're around one, they seem remarkably in the moment and carefree.

They flit and bob as if on some mysterious electric wire of nature. When they do stop on a flower, they give a visual sigh of relief, slowing and lowering their wings, collecting new energy.

They soak up the nectar of the gods like an ambrosia lifeline.

Mythic or completely natural, the monarch story will hinge on mankind's involvement. And not surprisingly, the history is not good.

Perhaps this time the outcome will be a beautiful surprise.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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