The King and the Queen of the Endangered Monarch Butterfly: A Story of Proactive Environmentalism

“A world without monarch butterflies would be disheartening and unacceptable. We can’t allow them to become extinct.”

– Elizabeth Weber

Call them the king and the queen of the endangered monarch butterflies. Ole Schell and Elizabeth Weber, both of whom grew up in a world of privilege, have put their own privilege to work for the environment. They are leading the charge in the San Francisco Bay Area to save the beloved monarchs from extinction. This summer they mounted a stunning exhibit in the tiny town of Bolinas in western Marin County to inform and educate citizens about the plight of the butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and about efforts to create habitat for them and bring them back to former nesting grounds where they have not been seen for years. If and when change comes, it often comes from places like Bolinas on the margins, not at the centers.

There were an estimated ten million monarchs in the 1980s. In July 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature issued a report that said the population has declined by an estimated 99.9 percent. The species was originally described by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758.

Black, orange and white, as though painted by an artist, and with a wingspan of about three-and-a-half inches by four inches, the monarchs are easily recognizable, even by those who aren’t lepidopterists and don’t study butterflies and moths. “I’m not sure I deserve the title of monarch queen,” Weber tells me. “But Ole definitely deserves the title of monarch king.”

On his family’s ranch in Bolinas, filmmaker Ole Schell has created the West Marin Monarch Sanctuary with hard physical labor, including his own. The son of the German-born photographer and political activist, Ilka Hartmann, and Orville Schell, a scholar, teacher, author and a China expert, Ole remembers his childhood when there were millions of monarchs in and around Bolinas. “They seemed endless,” he says. Recently, he has not caught even a glimpse of a monarch on his family’s land and none on neighboring parcels.

Schell cleared poison oak, chaparral and coyote bush, brought in hungry sheep to keep down the weeds, and received abundant help from Mia Monroe at the National Park Service and also from the folks at The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “We wanted a cohesive system,” Ole says. He’s got it. The team planted native nectar plants, fruit trees and berry bushes not only for their nectar, but also for food, plus lemon verbena for Chez Panisse, the flagship Berkeley restaurant.

Ole recruited an Iraqi War veteran and former sniper to build a fence to keep out deer and rabbits and enclose the monarch corridor. “It’s magical,” he says. Along with James Lefkowitz, Ole made and screened a seven-minute documentary about the ambitious environmental project. “There has been an uptick in the number of honey bees and bumblebees,” Ole says. But so far no uptick in the number of western monarchs, as opposed to eastern monarchs. The western monarchs migrate thousands of miles, from west to east, stopping at the Rocky Mountains and then flying back to California where they arrive from October to February. Their eastern cousins usually winter in Mexico.

Elizabeth Weber, who grew up in Bolinas—her parents were organic vegetable farmers at Star Route Farm—tells me that it takes 4 to 5 generations to fly from overwintering groves in California to different areas west of the Rockies and only one to journey back. Their journey is surely as epic as the journey that salmon make from fresh water to salt water and back to fresh water. “In my head I have images of monarchs from my childhood,” Weber says. She also has what she calls “sensorial memories.”

Born in Berkeley in 1970 and with a BA from Naropa in early childhood education and experience with “foster youth,” she has written and illustrated a book for children titled Where Will Your Legs Take You? A Mother’s Wishes for You. The mother of three children, Weber has followed her own legs to environmental hot spots in Guatemala, Mexico, Tanzania, India, Chile and the South Pacific. Her career as a photographer began in Sasolburg in South Africa, in a community of Blacks situated downwind from factories that polluted the air. “I met inspiring activists there,” she says. “They’re very well organized and determined to make changes in their own lives and in their environment.”

Weber says that the dramatic drop in the number of monarchs is a clear sign that our whole ecosystem is stressed. “All species are interrelated, so a significant decline in one species population affects all of the species in that ecosystem.” She adds that the “monarchs are drawing our attention to climate change, the loss of milkweed and native nectar-producing plants. In California, the drought, heat, wildfires and the use of toxic pesticides have led to the present crisis where the monarchs have been declared an endangered species.”

Hundreds of people have seen Ole’s film and Weber’s stark yet beautiful photos that document the loss of habitat. “We used art to bring people together to talk about what we can and need to do,” she says. “Ole and I want to do similar work in other places.” She adds, “A world without monarchs would be disheartening and unacceptable. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article has been corrected to clarify that milkweed must always be planted at least 5 miles from the coast anywhere north of Santa Barbara and when it is not, it disrupts the monarchs migratory cycle and harms them.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.