Reporting from Pacific Grove, Calif. — In Pacific Grove, you don't rile butterflies or the people who love them.
Monarch butterflies are as much a part of Pacific Grove as movies are of Hollywood. The city of 15,000 calls itself "Butterfly Town USA." A municipal ordinance imposes a fine of $1,000 for butterfly molestation. In a rite of passage known to all Pacific Grove parents, kindergarteners are decked out for the annual Butterfly Parade with black-and-orange wings — a tradition since 1939.
So last fall, when a city contractor did what many see as an overly zealous pruning job in the town's famous Monarch Grove Sanctuary, residents were angry. And when a butterfly census found only 793 migrating monarchs – down from more than 17,800 at the same time the year before — tourists stayed away. Business for the season plummeted by more than 25%
At a City Council meeting last week, Mayor Carmelita Garcia apologized for the city's mismanagement of the tree cutting, calling it "a horrible mistake." In the audience, people who had come to hear about emergency sanctuary repair wore toy butterfly antennae that bobbed up and down as the mayor spoke.
With the first monarchs due in about a month, volunteers have been scrambling for potted trees that can serve as makeshift butterfly shelter throughout the 2 1/2-acre sanctuary. "We're hoping and praying," said Moe Ammar, president of the Chamber of Commerce that serves the picturesque, sometimes fogbound town of Victorian homes.
"People who follow the monarchs come from all over the world," Ammar said. "When we get calls asking if the butterflies have arrived, we have to be honest."
Officials said the aim of the pruning was to get rid of old limbs that were ready to fall. But in retrospect, they admit they could have been more selective. "For whatever reason," said Deputy City Manager Jim Becklenberg, "we didn't consult with the habitat experts."
But the city also says it had good reasons for its safety concerns. Limbs from the area's many diseased pines fall from time to time. In 2004, a toppling branch killed an 85-year-old woman who was strolling with her grandchildren. The city, which had identified the tree as dangerous, paid $1 million to settle the family's lawsuit.
As anger over last fall's pruning job grew, the public works director was fired. City officials declined to say why.
A patch of woods near the windswept tip of the Monterey Peninsula, the city-owned refuge is empty now. Starting with small scouting parties in September, waves of monarchs fly in from their inland breeding grounds and generally stay into February. They traditionally cluster in great bunches, mostly on eucalyptus limbs, moving from spot to spot in the sanctuary depending on the sun and the wind.
But many of those limbs — some as high as 50 feet off the ground — were chopped, along with branches of Monterey pines that filtered the sun and buffered the wind. "They didn't trim the grove — they logged it," said one outraged local.
"It's remarkably sad," said Bob Pacelli, a Pacific Grove filmmaker who has documented the butterflies for about 20 years. "You start looking at one part of the destruction and follow it around, and just see more."
In desperation, Pacelli came up with a plan: Find boxed trees — preferably blue gum eucalyptus — around 20 feet high and place them at strategic spots to help shelter the incoming monarchs. But the city has been slow to respond, Pacelli said. One official, Pacelli said, wrongly accused him of stepping on a butterfly, a violation of city code. No charges were filed.
Pacelli and a band of ardent volunteers recruited Monte Sanford, a Reno-based environmental scientist.
"It's almost unreal that the iconic butterfly town — one of the most famous places for butterflies in the world — did that to their resource," Sanford said.
Just how much the severe lopping discouraged the monarchs is an open question.
For reasons still unclear — climate change and development are possible culprits — the winter migration to the California coast has dropped dramatically since 1997, according to the Xerces Society, a conservation group that runs a Thanksgiving week census. Last year was bad statewide, with a decline of about 55%. Pacific Grove, like a couple of other Monterey County spots, saw a drop of about 90%.
Stuart Weiss, a conservation ecologist and consultant for the city, said many factors may have contributed to last year's decline. Three years of drought in the Central Valley may have withered the milkweed that breeding butterflies thrive on. Severe storms may also have played a part.
Weiss this week started mapping every tree in the grove, assessing different locations for moisture, sun and wind. Creating a long-range plan, he said he'll advise the city to plant another row of eucalyptus trees and develop a more thoughtful, less reactive management approach.
"You have to think decades in advance about replacement of critical trees," Weiss said. "I want to build some resiliency into the habitat so that eventually, the loss of a few branches won't deal it a fatal blow."
Meanwhile, donations for two dozen potted trees are rolling in — the mayor herself wrote a check — and, next week, the City Council is to consider the plan.
"Something's got to happen," Pacelli said. "If it doesn't, there will be a bunch of old ladies chaining themselves to the trees out there."