Migratory monarchs have all but disappeared from Santa Barbara and Goleta’s eucalyptus groves, part of a dramatic decline in numbers across the country. | Credit: Courtesy

He rebuilt it, but they did not come.

More than three years after developer Ed St. George illegally buzzsawed Santa Barbara’s largest monarch grove at his Beach City apartment complex, and despite extensive restoration and replanting efforts to bring the migratory population back, the butterflies have still not returned. 

That was the main takeaway from a status report delivered by city staff to the Planning Commission this week, an official check-in that was part of St. George’s comeuppance for cutting down the 32 eucalyptus trees, for which he also paid a $95,000 fine and issued a formal apology. At the time, St. George said he removed the trees because they offered cover for nearby homeless encampments and posed a fire risk.

Since then, with the guiding expertise of local and state biologists, St. George has planted 60 coastal live oaks on the sprawling property that abuts Honda Creek, as well as 3,000 other plants meant to provide nectar and sustenance for overwintering monarchs. The biologists say the oaks, native to the Central Coast, are preferred for this habitat over invasive eucalyptus and have already grown considerably. Birds and other riparian species are already enjoying the new environment, they said.

“The restoration itself is going extremely well,” said Lawrence Hunt with Hunt & Associates Biological Consulting Services. It’s a challenging site, he said, on a 45-degree slope with sandy soil, but the greenery is filling out and will be a comfortable stopover for the butterflies, should they return. “We are sort of building a butterfly ‘Field of Dreams,’” he said. “If they come back, the habitat is there for them.”

Hunt said that sudden disappearances of monarchs like the one at Beach City and Honda Valley are taking place up and down the West Coast. “The monarch butterflies have suffered a catastrophic decline throughout the western United States,” he explained. “There are a lot of factors that are bringing to bear why we are not seeing any butterflies in the Santa Barbara area or Goleta.” Ellwood’s famously abundant population has all but vanished, Hunt said.

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During this year’s Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, only 1,914 monarchs were observed at 246 California sites. That’s a 99.9 percent freefall since the 1980s, when millions of the species fluttered about the state. As recently as 2017, approximately 200,000 were counted, but populations began fully collapsing soon after. Scientists believe habitat loss and pesticide use are to blame. Precipitous declines are also being recorded on the East Coast.

Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted not to add monarch butterflies to the Endangered Species list, citing other priority species. They were instead put on a waiting list to be more fully studied at a later date. Representative Salud Carbajal wrote to the Fish & Wildlife director urging more immediate action “to ensure the monarch does not become the 48th species to go extinct while on the candidate list.” 

Though other news out of Beach City was positive, city planner Tony Boughman did have some concerns. He noted St. George and his team have been slow in reporting their progress to officials; have not planted vines to screen the sensitive habitat from car headlights, as they’d agreed; and have not installed signs alerting nearby residents that active environmental restoration is taking place there. Some of Beach City’s residents, most of whom are students at Santa Barbara City College right next door, have trudged through the area and left trash behind, Boughman said.

Also frustrating, Boughman added, was that no weeding was carried out last year in order to reduce competition among the new plantings. “There was an explanation given that COVID had something to do with it,” he said, “but we don’t really think that was a good excuse.”

Planning Commissioner Jay Higgins asked Boughman what could be done about the large homeless encampments that have recently sprung up along the SBCC side of the creek. Some even have their own hand-dug latrines, he said. “We’re back to where we were,” Higgins said of St. George’s original motivation to clear-cut the eucalyptus to discourage illegal camping. “We’re sort of in an infinity loop here.” Boughman said he and city staff are looking into the issue. “It’s a tough and continuing problem,” he said.

The commission will receive another status report from St. George in two years’ time, after which they asked to be kept updated in the longer term on whether the monarchs return.

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