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Western U.S. monarch butterfly population is doing better than expected

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Every year, Monarch butterflies from all over the Western U.S. migrate to coastal California to escape harsh winter weather. In the 1980s and '90s, more than a million made the trip. Lately, those numbers have fallen.

EMMA PELTON: The last few years, we've had less than 30,000 butterflies. And last year, we actually dropped below 2,000 butterflies. So really an order of magnitude change in a short time period.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Biologist Emma Pelton is with the Xerces Society, a conservation group. She says pesticides and habitat loss played a role in that decline.

CORNISH: But this year, things are already looking up.

PELTON: We already see numbers way better than the last couple of years.

CORNISH: As of yesterday, biologists and volunteers from Mendocino to Baja have counted more than 100,000 monarchs.

RICHARD RACHMAN: It's kind of magical to just be in this, like, closed-in woodland in an urban area - like a cemetery or like a greenway - and then all of a sudden, poof. Like, you're just, like, a Disneyland fairy princess surrounded by butterflies.

SHAPIRO: Richard Rachman is the LA County Coordinator for the society's annual Thanksgiving Western Monarch Count. We wanted to see some of this Disney magic for ourselves, so our editor, Christopher Intagliata, met up with Rockman and volunteer Connie Day at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.

CONNIE DAY: So this is our mausoleum, and the office building is in there.

CORNISH: It was still dark out when they met.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA, BYLINE: Why are we here in the dark?

DAY: The monarchs hang out in the direction of first sun. So as soon as they start to warm up, they start to move. It's really hard to count them when they're moving.

CORNISH: Day says they had seen around 200 monarchs here in past weeks.

DAY: You know, when you first see them, they look like the trees are dripping. And when they begin to flutter, we have people come and see them for the first time. And they gasp - (gasping). I mean, I gasp, and I've been doing it for a long time (laughter).

RACHMAN: Totally.

SHAPIRO: Just the day before, Rachman had seen huge numbers in Hermosa Beach.

RACHMAN: I found 1,400 on some of the...

DAY: Eucalyptus.

RACHMAN: ...The Torrey pine and eucalyptus there. I was - jaw dropped, shaking.

CORNISH: Alas, on this day, there was no jaw-dropping or shaking.

RACHMAN: OK, there's one.

DAY: Good (laughter). Our count is one.

CORNISH: The monarchs may have been microphone shy. Rachman and Day tallied only seven that morning.

DAY: This is breathtaking (laughter) - not the kind of breathtaking I would hope for.

CORNISH: But after our editor left, the duo went down the road and found more than a hundred near the beach.

SHAPIRO: The count continues until December 5. And aside from the bad day here and there, overall, this year's numbers are encouraging. Emma Pelton says it's too early to know why.

PELTON: Nature has given us a second chance, but I do think we're in really dangerous territory. I think this is really a good reason to take heart that there might still be time to make a difference.

CORNISH: Pelton says if you live in the Western U.S., you can help by planting native milkweed and flowers in your yard, a small act that could give a big boost to the monarchs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "BOOGIE STOP SHUFFLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.