Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

On warm fall days on the California coast, it’s not uncommon to see the iconic monarch butterfly flitting through the sky. In some places, so many butterflies are present that it makes an impressive display.

“The air is filled with orange,” says Samantha Marcum, the monarch butterfly coordinator for the Pacific Southwest region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Marcum, who also works on the Western Monarch and Milkweed Habitat Suitability Model Project, is based near the Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, one of the groves where thousands of monarchs come each winter to escape chilly Western winters. On windy, cooler days, the monarchs can be seen up in the Monterey cypress and eucalyptus trees, clinging to the branches with thread-like legs, stained-glass wings winking in the daylight.

In 1997, an estimated 70,000 monarchs came to the grove. At the last count in 2015, that number was down to 12,000. Lighthouse Field State Beach is one of 50 grove sites recently studied by the Xerces Society in a report published in July, State of the Monarch Overwintering Sites in California, and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The authors hoped to illuminate the lives of Western monarchs, an understudied population of the species.

The study and the project represent a two-pronged effort by conservationists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to study and restore the regions where significant parts of the migratory monarch lifecycle take place. By restoring these lifelines, they hope to head off an Endangered Species Act listing. Monarchs were proposed for listing in 2014, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has promised a decision in 2019.

The latest study tapped into two decades of data gathered during the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, an annual assessment of overwintering monarchs on the California coast. The study found a 74 percent drop in Western monarch numbers over the years, the first time that a definitive number has been placed on decline of Western monarchs. What used to be an arriving cloud of 1.2 million butterflies in 1997 to the coast has dwindled to a wisp of 292,674 in 2015.

Monarchs are perhaps best known for their massive migration from the eastern United States to the oyamel forests of Mexico, where many millions of butterflies cling to the trees like a strange form of lichen. The Western monarchs are a smaller, genetically similar population, which breeds west of the Rocky Mountains and overwinter primarily in California, as well as some parts of Mexico.

But the Western monarchs are far less studied than their eastern counterparts, which endangered species conservation biologist and lead author Emma Pelton says is due to their smaller numbers and the geography of the West.

“So much of the West is so sparsely populated, like the Great Basin, western Montana, eastern Oregon and Washington, and those just aren’t areas with a lot of humans out there watching them,” Pelton says.

To understand what is causing the decline of the Western monarch, Marcum says they need more information about where the butterfly’s actual habitat is. While the recent study illuminates exactly how much the Western monarch populations have declined, the precise location of their feeding and breeding grounds is still unknown, as well as how many generations of butterflies it takes to get from their feeding grounds to the overwintering sites in California. Researchers have found that eastern populations with overwintering sites in Mexico take three or four generations of monarchs to get back to the northern United States and Canada. The Western migration is shorter, but much is still unknown about it.

That’s why the Fish and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with the Xerces Society, is carrying out the Western Monarch and Milkweed Suitability Habitat Project, which will identify key breeding and migratory sites. The project will provide that information to land managers in Western states to either proactively protect the sites, or begin restoration projects on degraded habitat, which most often includes planting native species of milkweed, the singular plant on which monarch caterpillars feast.

They’ll also have to contend with a conundrum: The monarch butterfly is widespread and well known, despite its precipitous decline. Since it’s not rare to see one, Pelton says, it can be hard to get the message across that the species is in trouble.

It’s also difficult to easily sum up what the problem is, since many factors are likely driving their disappearance—less habitat, more pesticides, monoculture practices, and climate change all may contribute, Pelton says.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts for monarchs,” she says.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

The police officer pulled over the little dirty car heading through Joshua Tree National Park, because its driver—an unshaven male in a shabby jacket—was speeding.

What caught the officer’s eye was unusual: Five women also rode in the car, sitting upright and dressed in stunning, multicolor satin gowns.

With stiff body language, he walked toward the car, looking at the backs of the beautiful women, with their intricately styled hair. Then he noticed something else: Each female passenger in the car was wearing a spectacular pair of butterfly wings that bore a perfectly realistic image of a butterfly’s pattern, and were bobbing gently in a lifelike manner.

“Where are you headed?” the officer asked the group.

“I’m a photographer,” replied the driver, without bothering to answer the actual question; he had used those same words numerous times before to explain away potentially odd behavior. “It’s called The Butterfly Project.”

The police officer asked a few more questions, and he let the driver off with a warning. The photographer, Nathan Teutli, remembers that he and the five winged women then proceeded on to a dry, hot little patch of desert and spent the afternoon shooting.

The prints resulting from The Butterfly Project range from startling to subtle, mysterious to amusing—but they all have an intricate story behind the pretty faces. Most of the women featured are not professional models, and what started as a personal photography experiment by Teutli has turned into an international expedition embedded with environmental and societal messages.

Nathan, 35 and partially based in Palm Springs, tells me that the catalyst for The Butterfly Project occurred while he was a child. He grew up on a ranch in Mexico, and one afternoon, he fell asleep while nestled in a peach tree. When he woke up, the first thing he saw was an incredibly beautiful butterfly calmly resting on his body. He never forgot the image, he says, and when he began studying art at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, he started work on his first pair of wings.

“They were really cool-looking, made from scraps of fabric and twisted bits of metal, but they were too heavy for a model to wear comfortably,” he says.

The wings also lacked the lifelike movement that Nathan wanted to re-create. “Then I made one out of a coat hanger and put pantyhose on it and spray-painted it, and the picture that was made from those wings and the model I put them on wound up being purchased by a private collector out of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now called the Palm Springs Art Museum).”

Nathan was no longer the sleepy boy on a ranch; his work was being bought by collectors, and his photographs on myriad subjects were appeared in Vanity Fair, Vogue and American Photo Magazine. He was also creating a story with The Butterfly Project, a theme that developed more with each model. He created a third pair of wings that would be used in every subsequent shoot. Nathan spent hours at the Botanical Gardens in Palm Desert, sitting down inside the butterfly garden until they flew to him. He took a photograph of each butterfly and printed them onto foam boards—around 4 feet tall.

“A butterfly’s average life span is about a month, for some types a week,” Nathan says while showing me photos of the final wing set. “Since each butterfly has a completely unique wing pattern, much like a fingerprint, the wings I made from their photos are utterly unique and unlike any other.”

Soon after the final design, he gave up most of his possessions and moved to Japan for seven years. “There was a difference in the women (in Asia). When I approached one and said that I was looking for a fashion-photography model, most were like, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’ Then I told them about The Butterfly Project, and that they would represent their country in the series. Instantly, they would almost back out of the project, and say things like they weren’t beautiful enough, that there were other women who were more beautiful, and basically that they weren’t good enough for their country, because they weren’t the most attractive person there. It was sad. And they were shocked that it didn’t matter and that I still wanted to photograph them.”

There were strict guidelines for becoming a Butterfly. Each woman would represent the country in which they resided, and were chosen based on a short, casual interview. “They had to be good people, and have an interesting story as well. Some of them were breathtakingly beautiful, but after asking them a few questions, they turned out to be pretty shallow.”

One of the women is a graphic designer; another is an emergency medical technician; and one is a traveling actress in Japan. There is a deep story in each of their eyes, and those stories draw Nathan to select them.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the models is the raw background of some of the shots. Part of the point of The Butterfly Project is to startle people into realizing what we’re destroying. A shoot near Niigata, Japan, shows a once-stunning beach littered with garbage, bottles marked as containing hazardous materials, chemical containers, and plastic that washes in from North Korea. Also visible are the masses of people bathing in the water amid the trash and contamination.

Butterflies themselves are incredible creatures who aid in agricultural health, and 30 types are now or are soon to be on the Endangered Species List. Nathan says, “It’s easy to distance ourselves from disasters or poverty-stricken areas of the world when he hear it on the news, but to see a beautiful creature—this half-woman, half-butterfly, standing in front of all the ugliness—it hits people more. I hope it makes them realize what’s happening to the beauty of the world.”

Nathan hopes that he will be able to shoot one woman from every country in the world, a massive undertaking that he speculates would take more than a year and a half. However, time is the least of his enemies.

“It would take a tremendous amount of research and precaution to find models in every country, especially in the regions where photographing women may not be allowed,” he says. Nathan already has families in Russia, France, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic who have offered him housing while he shoots.

He recalls a moment in Japan, when after shooting a model in a busy intersection, Nathan walked with the model across the street to a small café. An astonished old woman got up from her seat and gently poked the model to see if she was real, and drew sharply back in wonder when she felt the warmth of her skin. Another man stared incessantly at the man with the camera bag.

“I’m a photographer,” smiled Nathan.

Nathan offers select prints from The Butterfly Project via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and at select local consignment stores starting spring 2013. For more information, visit

Published in Visual Arts