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Monarch Conservation Spotlight: Monarch Wings Across California

Jul 29, 2020


  • Monarch Conservation Spotlight

Monarch Conservation Spotlight: Monarch Wings Across California


One thing that makes the iconic monarch butterfly an extraordinary insect is that their migration and population span a large geographical area and touch the lives of people across North America and beyond. To support their lifecycle they require different habitats, resources, and conservation practices across this expansive range. This creates opportunities for you and others to be a piece of this conservation puzzle and focus on improving a mixture of habitats for this imperiled insect. 


To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) and all of the diverse and critical work that goes into conserving pollinators, the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Task Force are launching a new “Monarch Conservation Spotlight” series. The series will highlight some of the impactful projects, programs and organizations working hard to address the declining trend across North American monarch populations and bring you information and resources about how you can get involved. Join us to learn more.



This month we interviewed Kelly Rourke, the Director of Programs and Operations at Pollinator Partnership (P2) about their Monarch Wings Across California project.






How would you describe this effort in 2-3 sentences?

Monarch Wings Across California (MWAC) aims to establish long-term habitat and research sites throughout California to inform restoration and enhancement efforts as well as indicate potential native wildflower seed sources for future projects throughout the region. As much less is known about their flight over the California mountain ranges, this project focuses on the migratory pathways that the western population of monarchs utilize to reach their coastal overwintering grounds and investigates the nectar resources which are critical to fueling this journey.


How did your project start?

The project was inspired by the success of our Monarch Wings Across Ohio effort and launched as a result of a Monarch Conservation Habitat Grant from the Monarch Joint Venture. With that seed funding, we were able to identify two sites one in Sonoma and one in Merced County, and work with the landowners to install and monitor this new habitat. Through support from the Hillsborough Garden Club, we were able to expand that work to an additional site in Sonoma County. I’m thrilled to share that we’ve recently received a grant from the State of California’s Wildlife Conservation Board and are now in the process of further expanding our efforts to three additional sites in Merced County and hiring a Project Coordinator.


What aspect of the monarch conservation puzzle would you say your project addresses and what makes it unique?

The staggering declines seen in the western population of monarchs have brought to light how little is actually known about their western migration and habitat use. We surveyed the current work in the region, looked for information gaps, and that’s where we’re focusing our efforts. Many groups are studying the overwintering and breeding/summering sites, but there isn’t much information currently available on the habitat use along the migratory route. Some of the western migration crosses the dry, harsh conditions of the Central Valley and it’s critical for conservationists to better understand what nectar sources are being utilized during that portion of their journey and to increase the quality, quantity, and connectivity of these vital forage areas. 


What is the target audience for this work? 

The target audience right now is conservationists and land owners/managers. This grant from the Wildlife Conservation Board requires us to target private lands and increase the quantity and quality of habitat available to monarchs within these types of lands. Our newest habitat sites are in partnership with private recreational and agricultural lands. Through MWAC, we’re collaborating with a duck club, fish farm, vineyard, non-profit butterfly garden, university, and large-scale commercial farm. Quite a diverse set of partners! At this phase in the project, we want to connect with people who can have the biggest impact on the ground and conduct monitoring to help determine the science of monarch utilization of this habitat. Down the road, we will look to disseminate this information and conduct outreach.


What are the primary goals of your project? 

The overarching goal of this project is to create long-term habitat along the migration corridor and conduct monitoring to further the understanding of monarch phenology and foraging use of these areas, and contribute valuable data which will help to inform future conservation efforts in California. Eventually, we would also like these to serve as demonstration sites, where we can do field tours. By doing this, we can show others what we’re doing, the land owners can share why they feel this is important work, and Pollinator Partnership can explain why work like this is important to helping support and rebound the western monarch population. 


What successes have you achieved?

Over the years this project has grown from two sites to six and through our efforts we’ve already impacted over 2,000 acres of land and engaged with numerous community members and conservation partners. We’re especially excited about our habitat installment at the university. This native wildflower planting will not only benefit the monarchs and other pollinators that utilize the space, but it will also serve as an outdoor learning lab and provide an opportunity for education and science-based learning. We’re also thrilled about the partners which don’t have pollinator dependent crops or other investments that have joined the effort. It’s incredibly rewarding to develop this diverse network of land stewards that are passionate about helping to conserve this iconic butterfly and make their lands more pollinator friendly. 


What is your biggest challenge?

First, was getting landowners on board to volunteer their land for free to participate in this effort. We tried reaching out to a broad swath of land owners and managers within our focus area through a variety of means. Conservation efforts in this area face a few challenges: the land is expensive, drought is common, and water is precious. Many of our calls and emails went unanswered or rejected, but we eventually prevailed thanks to people in our network sharing MWAC’s needs and goals with their contacts. 


Our second biggest challenge was sourcing regionally appropriate native plant material. California is a large state, with many microclimates. Even within our fairly small focus area, each site has needed to be treated as it’s own project with independent nectar plant lists because of the differences in soils, topography, climate, and elevation. It was fairly easy to come up with an ideal plant lists for the sites, but finding local native plant vendors with plants in stock that match our list and have regional genetics was very difficult. We’re working with some of our project partners, such as a nearby National Wildlife Refuge to help source and provide some local seed to these efforts in addition to what we’ve been able to source from the nurseries. A silver lining to this challenge is that one of MWAC’s agricultural partners saw an opportunity in this obstacle and has decided to incorporate a native seed development pilot project into part of their farming operation. 


What is something about monarch conservation or your project/organization you wish more people knew?

I wish more people knew about the importance of nectar plants along the migratory path. There has been a lot of focus on milkweeds and overwintering grounds, which is great and these are vital resources, but sometimes it seems to get lost that monarchs really need help fueling their flight. I wish people knew more about that aspect of their habitat requirements and the diversity of floral resources needed to successfully fuel their extraordinary migratory journey. 


Where can readers find more information about your project?

More information about this project and others can be found on our Monarch Wings Across America page here: Anyone interested in learning more about MWAC is also welcome to contact Kelly Rourke directly via email


What is the best way to get involved in your conservation work?

At this stage in the project we don’t have a lot of volunteer opportunities, but if anyone has land in California that would like to be in the program as a demonstration or habitat plot, please reach out! P2 can assist by providing a site plan and plant list. Though, only so much can be achieved with the available funding. Our most immediate need is additional funding through grants or donations to help expand this network and project. Two things that anyone can do to help is simply to: 1.) share the story and importance of western monarch populations and 2.) educate others about why they’re important. 


Alone no individual or entity can address all monarch conservation needs, but through collaborative conservation we can and will make a difference for monarchs and more. Keep following our “Monarchs Conservation Spotlight” series to hear more inspiring monarch conservation stories. 




Do you know a great project or organization that is addressing critical monarch conservation topics and deserve their moment under the spotlight? Let us know!


Article contributed by Amber Barnes, Pollinator Partnership, for the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Taskforce. The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo & article photos provided by Pollinator Partnership.