Monarch butterfly on a purple cornflower in a photo taken at the Tyler Arboretum, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

(Photo by Derek Ramsey)

The brilliant, iconic western monarch butterfly might soon be only a butterfly-memory.

I mean really soon. The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, which tracks the butterfly’s California overwintering numbers, recorded a stunning decline recently: Overall, their population has fallen 99.4 percent since the 1980s.

What’s worse, or just as bad — it’s hard to tell with statistics as grim as these — is how swiftly this butterfly’s demise could be coming. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the insect’s remaining population may have plummeted as much as 86 percent from the year before, “with the population at less than 0.5 percent of historic levels.”

The Xerces Society — the nonprofit whose mission is to conserve invertebrates — “estimates that the overall population will be around 30,000,” the EDF noted on its website. (Indeed, the ultimate count yielded a total of 28,429 butterflies.) “This is a grim number, especially when you consider studies showing that 30,000 butterflies is the average population needed to avoid a complete collapse of the western migration, and extinction of the entire western population.”

Is it curtains for the monarch, then? Nothing anybody can do to save them? Au contraire: The butterfly’s perhaps-imminent demise has inspired a number of relief efforts. A recently passed bill in California, for example, devotes $3 million to monarch conservation, and the EDF is partnering with local farmers in that state “to restore key patches of monarch habitat in places like the Central Valley,” where the butterflies “travel in the spring and the fall on their journey to and from the California coast.”

There are ways you can help the monarch from Colorado. The Xerces Society is offering a free webinar later this month about the “citizen science” initiative that tracks the butterfly, “overwintering habitat conservation efforts,” and ways to get involved. The webinar is aimed at national-park employees in the Western states, but (for that matter) is open to anyone who would like to learn more and make a difference in the monarch’s fate. The webinar takes place Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 12 p.m. Mountain time. Go to tinyurl.com/yyvygjef to register.



Speaking of citizen-science efforts, and conserving imperiled species, the Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is this weekend. You don’t need to be a birder to participate, nor do you need (as the title of the count implies) to travel far, or even at all — the observations can take place from the comfort of a warm kitchen, hot toddy or a mug of hot chocolate at hand. What you see will be added to the observations of roughly 160,000 other citizen-scientists, who’ll be gazing outside at local avians between Friday and Monday. There is even a GBBC photo contest you can enter at the same time (awards go to best photos not merely of birds per se, but for composition, for habitat, and of humans doing the observing). Go to gbbc.birdcount.org to sign up.

Bird and butterfly counts are just two of many ongoing crowdsourced efforts by citizen-scientists, New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl recently pointed out. “One tracks populations of indoor insects,” she wrote. Another “listens for frog calls. One monitors wildflowers in the Appalachians. One tracks light pollution in the night sky. There’s even one tracking how good people are at guessing the ancestors of mixed-breed dogs. All of them contribute crucial data that help scientists understand both how the world works and how it’s changing, especially now that it’s changing so much. It’s something ordinary people can do, even if they think they’re powerless to do anything.”