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Bakersfield habitat chosen as site to help rescue plummeting monarch butterfly population

Anyone who lived in Bakersfield in the 1960s, '70s and '80s probably remembers that spotting a beautiful orange and black monarch butterfly was not at all a rare occurrence.

But when was the last time you spotted a monarch in Bakersfield?

In an effort to respond to a precipitous decline in the population of the western monarch butterfly, the Panorama Vista Preserve in Bakersfield and seven other locations across California have been chosen as butterfly rest stops of a sort.

The Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Rescue Program, through a grant funded by the state Wildlife Conservation Board, will plant milkweed as well as nectar-rich plants on 50 acres of the preserve.

"It's a monarch butterfly project, but it will benefit native bees and other pollinators as well," said Carolyn Belli, president of the Kern River Corridor Endowment. The endowment owns and manages the 936-acre preserve which straddles both sides of the Kern River between the Panorama Bluffs and miles of oilfields to the north.

"Monarchs and many other species use vegetation along rivers to reproduce and to move through the landscape," said Erin Hagen, director of science for River Partners, the Chico-based nonprofit that is heading up the project at all eight locations.

"By adding monarch-friendly plants like milkweed and other flowering varieties to the preserve, we can help invite monarchs back to the area, giving them great places to find food, get rest on their long journeys, and reproduce to boost populations."

Hagen likened these eight sites — from Butte County in the north to San Diego County in the south — as oases, or pit stops for butterflies weary from travel.

Plans for the effort took off in 2019, but more recent and alarming news has brought new attention and new urgency to the plight of this species.

According to reporting from the Associated Press, the number of western monarch butterflies wintering along the California coast has plummeted precipitously to a record low, threatening the insects with extinction.

An annual winter count by the Xerces Society recorded fewer than 2,000 butterflies, a massive decline from the tens of thousands tallied in recent years and the millions that clustered in trees along the California coast in the 1980s.

Early Friday morning, Belli was joined by the her husband, Joe Belli, the preserve's field manager, and Andy Honig, a member of the endowment's governing board.

Honig had already begun planting desert milkweed, a bluish-gray shrub, in a small area of the preserve.

"I gathered the seeds up on Rancheria Road," he said. "There are a number of places in Kern County where the desert milkweed grows."

Western monarch butterflies head south from the Pacific Northwest to California each winter, returning to the same places and even the same trees, where they cluster to keep warm, according to the AP. The monarchs generally arrive in California at the beginning of November and spread across the country once warmer weather arrives in March.

They often travel along riparian habitat, along rivers like the Kern, Hagen said. 

All agree: The loss of the western monarch would be a disaster and a tragedy. And more needs to be done.

River Partners is looking for more funding and additional sites where these butterfly pit stops can be improved and enhanced.

And they will monitor the effectiveness of the project.

But any homeowner can plant milkweed or nectar-rich flora as a sweet invitation to the black and orange beauties, Hagen said.

To see monarchs in flight in Bakersfield again might be the ultimate reward.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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