Butterflies, salmon, and rattlesnakes: Some examples of how nature is impacted by our changing environment

A closeup of a monarch butterfly on a flower
A monarch butterfly is seen here. Butterfly populations have been in decline in California recently.
(Ernie Cowan)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Oct. 20. I’m Justin Ray.

In the last few weeks, some areas in California have seen rain. That’s good, considering the concerning, recent data from the state.

California has reported its driest year in terms of precipitation in a century, and experts fear that the coming 12 months could be even worse.

The Western Regional Climate Center found that a total of 11.87 inches of rain and snow fell in California in the 2021 water year, which ended Sept. 30. That’s half of what experts deem average during a water year in California: about 23.58 inches. The last time the state reported so little rain and snowfall was in 1924.

The drought is one way in which the environment around us is changing. Earlier this year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a scary report detailing the latest authoritative scientific information about global warming. It found, among other things, that ice melt and sea level rise are already accelerating and that humans are largely responsible for the warming of Earth.

While we’re thinking about the drought and environmental changes, I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss the perils animals face while dealing with our changing climate. This list is, of course, not comprehensive, but I do think these examples show how when one organism is affected, others face consequences too.


Baby salmon are dying by the thousands in one California river. Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that the deaths at Northern California’s Klamath River are being caused by low water levels brought on by drought. This has allowed a parasite to thrive. That’s not all: A Native American tribe has been devastated due to their diet and traditions being tied to the fish. The plummeting catch has already led to skyrocketing retail prices for salmon, hurting customers who say they can no longer afford the $35 per pound of fish.

Butterfly population declines have been so dramatic in California recently that for some species, fertility clinics are the only reason they’re still around, according to the BBC. The state’s iconic monarch butterfly breeds in Mexico and many travel about 3,000 miles to California’s coast. This is happening due to dwindling food sources (plants) and harmful pesticides. “The butterflies are the canary in the coal mine,” Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, told BBC. He warned that the loss of insects such as butterflies will have ripple effects on the animal kingdom, eventually affecting humans.

One odd impact of climate change is the appearance of rattlesnakes. “They’re desperate for water,” Emily Taylor, a Cal Poly reptile biologist and rattlesnake expert, told the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded and thus rely on their surroundings to maintain body temperature. What happens when temperatures go up? A slightly warmer climate could translate to more hours of the day when snakes are at their preferred temperature. It also means a longer breeding season, said Breanna Putman, a biologist at Cal State San Bernardino, indicating more rattlesnakes could be born each year. Of course, this means we could see more of them interacting with humans, Newsweek reported.

Further reading:

What you can do — and what you can’t — to deal with California’s driest year in a century. What can California residents do, individually, to cope with the lack of rain and snow, and the shortness of our water supplies? Let’s be blunt: not a heck of a lot. But a recent editorial explains how legislative solutions and agricultural buy-in could make a difference.

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.


A battle over the future of L.A. Zoo: Should it expand to compete with Disney, Universal? For 55 years, the Los Angeles Zoo has been a venerable but decidedly low-key attraction nestled amid the hills of Griffith Park. But officials are considering a controversial transformation backers say would give it a competitive edge in a market dominated by powerhouse tourist attractions such as Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and other destinations including the San Diego Zoo. Our deep dive explains the full $650-million plan. Los Angeles Times

A family walks through the L.A. Zoo
This area of the Los Angeles Zoo is targeted for redevelopment.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles city workers who have yet to get vaccinated for COVID-19 or tell the city that they’re seeking an exemption by Wednesday could have additional time to get the shots under a plan being put forward by city officials. During that additional time, they would get tested twice a week for the coronavirus — and the cost of the tests would be deducted from their paychecks at $65 per test, according to the plan. The tests would be taken during the employees’ time, not while they were being paid for city work. If workers still haven’t followed the vaccination rules by the end of Dec. 18, they would face “corrective action.” Meanwhile, faced with getting a COVID-19 vaccine or losing their jobs, thousands of hesitant Los Angeles school district employees opted for a last-minute jab, allowing them to access schools and offices on Monday and resulting in 99% compliance among classroom teachers and 97% of all employees. Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez introduced a motion Tuesday to suspend Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas days after federal authorities indicted him on federal bribery charges. Council members will hold a special session Wednesday to consider the suspension. If it’s approved by the council, Ridley-Thomas would be barred from attending council and committee meetings, executing contracts, using discretionary funds and engaging in constituent services. Los Angeles Times


4 major plot holes in the ‘organized crime rings’ Walgreens narrative. I just told you about the controversial closures of Walgreens stores in San Francisco. Well, this essay discusses some important context. The most persuasive bit explains how the drugstore chain, along with Target and CVS, works closely with lobbying groups like the California Retailers Assn. and California Chamber of Commerce, which have spent millions trying to repeal Proposition 47. The measure reclassified certain theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. “These corporations and their lobbying organs have a clear motive to embellish the role of shoplifting to support a media narrative that suits their agenda,” Adam Johnson writes. Substack

A second state worker has been charged in connection with a scandal at California’s Office of AIDS. Christine M. Iwamoto, who was a manager at the office until March 2018, was charged in federal court in Sacramento last week with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, court records say. Iwamoto pleaded not guilty. She is accused in a fraud case that has already led to a guilty plea by Schenelle Flores, who also worked at the office. The two are accused of devising a scheme in December 2017 to defraud the state by having a company bill the Office of AIDS for their personal expenses, including sporting events, concerts, restaurants and travel. The Office of AIDS collaborates with state and federal agencies to ensure that efforts to combat HIV/AIDS are targeted and effective. Sacramento Bee

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Intense rainstorms could dampen fall fire risk in parts of California. After suffering through a devastating summer of wildfires, Californians may catch a break this month as a series of expected storms could essentially end the fire season in the northern and central parts of the state, experts say. Although it’s not clear exactly how much precipitation will fall, weather models are showing a fairly high likelihood that a series of storms could drop significant rain and multiple feet of snow at higher elevations up north through Halloween. Southern California, however, will see far less rainfall and therefore remain at risk for wildfires. Los Angeles Times

Cloudy skies are seen over Tarantula Mountain in Thousand Oaks on Monday.
Cloudy skies are seen over Tarantula Mountain in Thousand Oaks on Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)


A new report from researchers and community-based organizations released Monday shows Indigenous farmworkers across California lacked information and resources to protect themselves during the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic “simply became another life-threatening hazard” among many for Indigenous farmworkers, said the report, titled “Experts in their fields.” “We call on our state and federal representatives to step up and work with us to systematically address the long-standing, emergent, and ongoing inequalities in our campesino communities,” says Dr. Sarait Martinez, the executive director of Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, a community organization that works with the Indigenous community in the Central Valley. KVPR

The Barbra Streisand Institute is becoming a reality at UCLA as the music legend has committed an undisclosed sum to fund research dedicated to four “societal challenges” she is focused on, including climate change and disinformation. “While it’s easy to reflect on the past, I can’t stop thinking about the future and what it holds for our children, our planet and our society,” Streisand said in a statement. The launch of the institute extends a long-term partnership Streisand has had with UCLA since the 1984 establishment of the Streisand Chair in Cardiology, and the 2014 creation of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Health Program. Hollywood Reporter

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Los Angeles: Overcast, 73. San Diego: Cloudy, 70. San Francisco: Rainy, 68. San Jose: Watch a sleeping fox. Rainy, 68, Fresno: Overcast, 75. Sacramento: Rainy, 60.


Today’s California memory is from Phil Parish:

During WW II as a child growing up in Westside Village/ Palms area of L.A., our next door neighbor invited me to go with him and his son to irrigate a walnut grove in the San Fernando Valley, an area I had never visited. We drove over the Sepulveda Pass in his Willys, through the tunnel, and as we descended to the Valley floor, it grew hotter and hotter. Waves of heat beat on me until we reached the shade of the walnut trees. I then luxuriated with my feet in the cooling irrigation water as it gushed from the standpipe.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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