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The Monarch Whisperer: Mia Monroe's Data-Driven Devotion

By Melissa Manuel on 2. November 2023
Melissa Manuel

Monarch whisperer Mia Monroe of Mill Valley, CA,  works as a park ranger at Muir Woods National Monument and is one of the founders of the Xerces Society’s Western Monarch Count. The count engages volunteer community scientists in collecting data on the overwintering western monarch population along the Pacific coast from Mendocino, CA to Northern Baja, Mexico from approximately October through March. Data collected helps Xerces and the monarch conservation community to understand the western monarch’s annual and long term population trends.

 

Mia inspecting a milkweed plant
Mia Monroe is the lead coordinator and one of the founders of the Xerces Society's Western Monarch Count. (Photo: Isis Howard.)

 

Mia’s love and passion for monarch butterflies began in early childhood with the encouragement of her grandmother, who would take her grandchildren to Pacific Grove in winter to see the overwintering butterflies there. Mia recalls, “My earliest memories are walking along the train tracks awaiting the arrival of my grandmother from San Francisco. I would find monarch caterpillars to bring home, with big sprigs of milkweed, to rear!”

Growing up, Mia remembers that Rachel Carson, beloved marine biologist, writer, and conservationist, was a household name. “The need to protect nature was a family lifestyle, so conservation was very important,” Mia says. “As a family, a favorite activity was tidepooling. I was in the thrall of sea stars and chitons; my sand dollar and abalone collection was legendary, and later I would especially seek out moon snails.” 

As a young adult, Mia went to school at the University of California, Berkeley and began a career of public service as a national park ranger. It was during one of her shifts as a park ranger that she noticed a flier seeking volunteers to help count monarch butterflies at nearby overwintering sites. Intrigued, Mia responded to the ad and began surveying the California coast to document the overwintering sites of the butterflies, along with other foundational scientists such as Walt Sakai, Dennis Frey, and David Marriott. In 2000, as a volunteer with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Mia Monroe took over coordinating the count, and the count continues to be coordinated by Mia and Xerces staff today.

 

Many volunteers posting for a photo in front of trees
Regional coordinators provide essential training, support and guidance to Western Monarch Count volunteers. Mia acts as regional coordinator for San Francisco Bay Area counties. 

 

As the lead coordinator for the Western Monarch Count, Mia has collected memories along with the data over the years. Powerful memories include seeing the return of a milkweed meadow in Yosemite, thanks to the work of rangers to create trail definition, and watching monarchs there all afternoon. Mia recalls being at an overwintering site that had bare ground littered with struggling wet monarchs. Mia and others set about moving them gently to shrubs nearby so they could dry, warm and fly into the day's growing warmth. Mia recalls, “There is nothing like watching the flashes of orange dancing like living stained glass as they fill the sky.”

 

Mia standing in a field of milkweed
Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants and caterpillars eat the leaves. Fields of milkweed make for great monarch viewing opportunities. 

 

Thanks to Mia’s amazing dedication over the years, monarch conservation efforts have continued to gain traction. Mia says about her participation in the count, “I was powerfully moved to become a community scientist, make a meaningful contribution and it has become a way of life as monarchs symbolically mark the change of the seasons. Now I look forward to meeting with friends, being a strong voice, and involving schools and libraries to extend the enthusiasm and reach.” 

We are excited to see how this year’s count goes. The 27th annual Thanksgiving count begins on Saturday, November 11 with the help of over 200 community scientists and partners, and concludes on December 7. 

 

overwintering monarch on dead plants on a beach
Mia poetically refers to monarchs as "living stained glass."

 

Authors
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Melissa joined Xerces in 2022 as the Donor Engagement Specialist, working with the Membership team. She is a "retired" young farmer with over a decade of expertise in urban farming, agroforestry, garden design and education. Before joining Xerces, she worked as a horticulturist at Leach Botanical Garden. Melissa holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Portland State University and has worked with a number of environmental non-profit groups throughout her career.

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