The monarch butterfly’s annual journey is the largest insect migration on Earth. If you close your eyes, hearing them nesting is like someone gently jostling a bag of dried leaves.
That may not sound very exciting, but it truly is. For proof, travel down the coast a ways to the butterfly groves in upper Goleta. Listen, watch and understand that what you are seeing may be among the last such migrations on Earth.
Goleta is among dozens of monarch nesting locations on the Central Coast, but the old Ellwood Groves, along with those in Pismo Beach, are about the best place to witness one of nature’s wonders.
It may soon be over for butterfly watchers, and for the monarchs themselves, however. In the latest year-over-year comparison, the number of monarchs has dropped nearly 90 percent. This, on the heels of a 97-percent drop since the 1980s. Where there once were hundreds of thousands of monarchs, now only a few thousand are showing up for their local winter respite.
There are many reasons for such a decline. Persistent drought and massive wildfires have decimated traditional nesting areas, as has the spread of pesticide use on lawns and crops.
While tragic, the apparent demise of the monarch butterfly is no major surprise. Scientists reckon that up to 200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals become extinct every 24 hours, a rate 1,000 times what was considered the natural extinction rate. The science community considers this die-off rate unlike anything that has happened since dinosaurs were killed off 65 million years ago.
Extinctions are inevitable, but the ascension of mankind seems to have accelerated the process. The last white rhino male died last year, leaving two females — so that species is doomed. The American red wolf species is down to 40 members, and dwindling.
The Center for Biological Diversity believes Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals over the past half-billion years.
As we said, extinctions have always been natural occurrences, with a background historical rate of about five species a year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at up to 10,000 times the natural background rate.
Are we on an inexorable path to mass extinction? It seems a reasonable question to ask, given the established facts of a rapidly-warming planet, the rate of mankind’s consumption of the planet’s natural resources, and humans’ inability to simply get along.
The general rule is that a newspaper editorial should lay out the facts of a case, then make a point or recommend a course of action, but we’re not certain that rule can apply in this case.
For instance, with a monarch butterfly population fluttering toward extinction, what could humans possibly do to prevent what now seems inevitable? We can’t instantly provide more nesting trees, or quickly stop the planet from warming, nor do we have the capacity to rein in the dramatic increase in and ferocity of wildfires.
Nature is a powerful force, but so is mankind’s relentless encroachment on the environment, an advance predicated on need and greed.
So, feeling stymied in our responsibility to make a point with this essay, we challenge readers to finish it. What is your strategy for saving valuable animal and plant species? Is that even possible?
Think about this — when your teenage children reach the age you are now, what kind of world will they inherit? Based on available evidence, it will almost certainly be a world without the monarch butterfly and thousands of other species that today’s adults have known so well.