In one of the biggest mobilizations of resources and talent ever organized to save an insect, the state of California is teaming with conservation groups, biologists and scores of citizen scientists to rescue the western monarch butterfly from the brink of extinction. To do this, they are placing their hopes on an unassuming, poisonous plant called milkweed. Monarch butterflies, known for their distinctive orange and black pattern, once flocked to California in the millions, spending the winter clumped on trees as they migrated to and from the state’s central coast. But the population has sharply declined from 4.5 million in the 1980s, dropping to nearly 200,000 in recent decades before taking a precipitous dive in 2018. That year, the population fell to nearly 30,000, and when volunteers counted again in November, it had dropped to fewer than 2,000 – representing a 99% collapse in the last three decades. “It was really grim,” says Angela Laws, an endangered species conservation biologist with the Xerces Society, which conducts the November population counts using an army of volunteer naturalists. “It’s alarming that the numbers are so low. But we still have time to save these butterflies.” Western monarch caterpillars depend on a […]

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