Plan Highlights Habitat Reconstruction, Fire Risk Reduction and Stewardship Programs
Marking a major watershed moment for Ellwood Mesa and the western monarch butterfly, the Goleta City Council unanimously approved the Ellwood Monarch Butterfly Habitat Management Phase 1 Implementation Plan on October 17. The Implementation Plan details the comprehensive, on-the-ground work needed to improve monarch butterfly habitat, reduce wildfire risk, and repair basic public infrastructure at the popular Ellwood Mesa Open Space. Approval of the plan is a major milestone for the City and an important step for conservation efforts to recover monarch butterfly populations in the western United States.
Goleta Parks and Open Space Manager George Thomson said, “Decisive action to restore critically important habitat for the western monarch butterfly is necessary at Ellwood. The City of Goleta is positioned to be a leader in this nationally significant conservation effort and we are bringing the best available science and technology to help the iconic monarch butterfly. With the City Council’s approval of the Phase 1 Implementation Plan, we are one step closer to enhancing over 60-acres of butterfly habitat.”
The western monarch butterfly is experiencing an alarming population decline throughout the United States, primarily due to loss of habitat, historic drought, and increased insecticide use. Locally, the Goleta Butterfly Grove at Ellwood Mesa is one of the top five most important sites in California for monarch butterflies as they migrate hundreds of miles in the fall to spend several months in the eucalyptus forests along the coast. An historic drought during the last decade killed thousands of eucalyptus trees at the Goleta Butterfly Grove, increasing fire risk, closing popular recreational trails, and threatening a total collapse of the monarch butterfly habitat. The Phase 1 Implementation Plan builds on three years of community input and scientific research to create a detailed roadmap that balances reforestation of the Ellwood eucalyptus grove with wildfire risk reduction. Improved recreational trails and educational opportunities are also eagerly anticipated parts of the plan.
Specific project elements approved by the Goleta City Council include:
- Replanting more than 1,200 eucalyptus and native trees in monarch butterfly habitat areas.
- Installation of over 100,000 native plants to increase nectar sources for butterflies and other wildlife.
- A new irrigation system to ensure plant establishment and future emergency tree watering.
- Felling and chipping several thousand dead eucalyptus trees to reduce the risk of devastating wildfire.
- A new wooden footbridge to allow all-weather and accessible access across Devereux Creek.
- Recreational trail improvements and a signage program to reduce site impacts and increase educational opportunities.
- Rehabilitation of two butterfly viewing areas to facilitate learning and nature appreciation.
- Reconstruction of emergency and maintenance vehicle access to Ellwood Mesa.
- Wildlife and nesting bird management plans to ensure the protection of sensitive environmental resources during construction.
Goleta City Councilmember Stuart Kasdin noted the City “planned ahead, figured out what we need to do to preserve the ecosystem, and how to do it right—how to provide safety to the public, reduce wildfire risk, and prioritize the monarch butterfly.” Reflecting on the decades of community volunteerism and financial contributions to keep Ellwood Mesa a protected open space and, more recently, engagement with the City’s team to improve the Phase 1 Implementation Plan, Mayor Pro Tempore Kyle Richards said, “We owe a debt of gratitude to our community for making this happen and saving this treasure. The Implementation Plan is very well thought out and we are moving forward. We have a plan to accomplish major improvements to the monarch butterfly habitat.”
A prominent international wildlife conservation group agrees. Emma Pelton, Senior Conservation Biologist for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reviewed the City’s plan and concluded, “We support the swift approval of the proposed implementation plan…in particular, replanting of trees to replace the standing dead trees proposed for removal during the fuels reduction work and additional restoration plantings.” The Xerces Society also emphasized the importance of Goleta’s Butterfly Grove and the urgency of the conservation efforts, “Western monarchs overwintering in coastal California have declined more than 95% from their historic size and the migratory population faces a high risk of extinction. The Ellwood Mesa monarch overwintering sites are among the most important habitat areas—of the hundreds of sites in California where monarchs spend the winter, Ellwood is ranked as the fourth highest priority to conserve.”
The Goleta City Council also approved two agreements that establish new relationships with neighboring universities to bring academic expertise and real-world solutions to the Goleta Butterfly Grove. The City is contracting with the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (CCBER, https://www.ccber.ucsb.edu/) to provide on-the-ground land stewardship, including native seed collection and grow out, invasive plant removal, erosion control, and other activities necessary to rehabilitate the Butterfly Grove. CCBER staff will also lead volunteer work days and assist with a new community stewardship program. The Goleta City Council also approved a contract with California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo’s Plant Conservatory (https://plantconservatory.calpoly.edu/welcome-plant-conservatory) to provide eucalyptus trees carefully selected to restore the microclimate that monarch butterflies need during their winter stay in Goleta.
The City’s next step is approval of the plan by the California Coastal Commission next spring. Pending approval of all permits, the Butterfly Grove Phase 1 Implementation Plan construction is anticipated to begin next summer.
Funding for the management of Ellwood Mesa, including the Goleta Butterfly Grove, is provided by the City of Goleta and grants from the California State Coastal Conservancy and California Climate Investments.
To learn more about the Implementation Plan, and the City’s stewardship of Ellwood, please visit cityofgoleta.org/ellwood. If you have any questions or comments, or are interested in volunteering, please contact the Parks and Open Space Division at email@example.com.
Western monarch butterflies depend on the Goleta Butterfly Grove for protection from winter storms. Drought and tree die offs have led to major declines in the butterfly population at Ellwood and across the western United States.
Dead trees (depicted in pink and orange, upper left) were mapped using a drone and technology called LiDAR. A computer model was developed to simulate removal of the dead wood and demonstrate the best configuration for replanting trees to reduce wind speeds within the Butterfly Grove. Low wind speeds (depicted on the right as shades of blue) are a critical requirement for monarch butterfly habitat.