Calling it a “sigh of relief,” the annual count of the iconic orange and black Western monarch butterflies has turned up a preliminary count of more than 50,000 insects at overwintering sites along the California coast.

Last year’s count turned up about 1,900 butterflies and experts were worried about extinction.

The butterfly, which migrates into Idaho and other Pacific Northwest states during the summer, once covered trees by the millions during the winter months from Mendocino County to Baja California, Mexico, during the 1980s. The Western monarch population has dropped 99% since then. Like migrating salmon, the insects fly to and from specific sites each year, sometimes covering more than 3,000 miles.

Scientists say the Western monarch population is affected by a combination of factors, including loss of milkweed habitat along their migratory route as housing expands into their territory, the use of pesticides and herbicides, and a changing climate.

This year’s official California count started last week and will continue through November and is coordinated by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“This is certainly not a recovery but we’re really optimistic and just really glad that there are monarchs here and that gives us a bit of time to work toward recovery of the Western monarch migration,” said Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at Xerces Society.

Several Idaho wildlife biologists also are paying close attention to the November count.

“It’s amazing that there’s 50,000, and it’s a sigh of relief,” said Tempe Regan, Idaho Fish and Game biologist in Salmon. “You can’t get much below 1,900 before you’re at extinction. They are still at such a low population level, they’re still so fragile, that if any big stressor happens in the future, they could be back down to a very low range.”

Monarch numbers have dropped off dramatically in Idaho in recent years and Fish and Game biologists are planning projects to help turn things around.

“I went out this year to see how many monarch butterflies I could find, and only found six,” said Fish and Game biologist David Dressel in Pocatello. “That’s with three days of looking. It’s not like we’re out of the woods, we’re on our way to a better year, but their population is still pretty low.”

Monarchs were just as scarce in the Salmon area, once known as a monarch destination.

“I saw one or two in Salmon and looked at some milkweed patches and found one caterpillar and a few more areas with caterpillar poop,” Regan said. “The previous year I didn’t see any.”

Dressel said habitat improvement projects are planned at Fish and Game wildlife management areas in southeast Idaho and plans to track the monarchs are also in the works using high-tech “electronic nano pin tags on some of the migrating adults.” The hope is to track the migrating route of the insects and eventually place nourishing habitat along the way, like rest stops for weary travelers.

“It will benefit a lot of insects and even big game animals,” he said.

Dressel placed two sticker tags on monarchs this summer in hopes of receiving information on them should they show up in California.

“We can get some tracking information that way,” he said. “It’s somewhat a shot in the dark, but we have actually gotten information back from one. There was one that was tagged in southeast Idaho that showed up in California. It was very exciting.”

Dressel said two monarch breeding sites in southeast Idaho are at a wildlife management area near Aberdeen and at the Curlew National Grassland west of Malad.

Monarchs from across the West migrate annually to about 100 wintering sites dotting central California’s Pacific Coast. One of the best-known wintering places is the Monarch Grove Sanctuary, a city-owned site in the coastal city of Pacific Grove, where last year no monarch butterflies showed up.

The city 70 miles south of San Francisco has worked for years to help the declining population of monarch. Known as “Butterfly Town, USA,” the city celebrates the orange and black butterfly with a parade every October. Messing with a monarch is a crime that carries a $1,000 fine.

“I don’t recall having such a bad year before and I thought they were done. They were gone. They’re not going to ever come back and sure enough, this year, boom, they landed,” said Moe Ammar, president of Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce.

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