Meet the Monarch Butterfly King of Bolinas
By Matt Dolkas,
Senior Manager, Marketing
October 6, 2023
Western monarch butterflies are hovering on the brink of extinction.
The numbers of this lordly winged insect have been plummeting for decades, with recent data indicating a 99.4% decline in the population since the 1980s. Picture this: for every 160 monarch butterflies fluttering forty years ago, now there is only one.
“It’s a bit embarrassing to say now, but I remember shaking branches with thousands of butterflies as a kid. They were just everywhere on the ranch,” shared Ole Schell of Bolinas. In the late 1970s, Ole’s dad, Orville Schell, and close friend, Bill Niman, purchased 200 acres north of town and began raising cattle, the origins of the Niman Ranch that would later help revolutionize the food industry.
Each winter, western monarch butterflies return to the mild climates along the coast of California. Generation after generation, they once clustered in several sites around Bolinas between late September and early March, including the thick eucalyptus stands behind Ole’s childhood home. But due to habitat loss, site degradation and other factors, Ole’s family ranch is among the state’s few safe harbors for these flight-weary migrants.
And then the population collapsed.
In the pandemic winter of 2020-2021, the overwintering populations nearly vanished. In that year, researchers surveyed fewer than 2,000 individuals across the entirety of the state. For the first time, no monarchs were spotted in Marin County—not a single one. But in what seemed like the beginning of the end, for Ole, was the start of something new.
Watch the video and hear Ole’s story of saving the monarchs of Bolinas.
On September 11, 2021, Ole broke ground on the West Marin Monarch Sanctuary. Collaborating with volunteers from the Guardian Grange, an organization that connects military veterans with projects related to wildlife conservation and regenerative agriculture, they erected a deer fence around a small plot nestled close to the roosting site—the foundation for a massive butterfly garden that would help nourish the ranch’s visiting royalty.
“Monarchs need three things,” Ole explained, “roosting habitat, fresh water, and nectar plants for food.” Partnering with the Xerces Society, SPAWN, and with guidance from Mia Monroe, a volunteer with Xerces and ranger at Muir Woods National Monument, a plan was organized to plant up to 2,000 native nectar plants. These flowers, shrubs, and grasses would complement the existing blueberries, passion fruits, apples, and other fruits and berries, some of which are served at Chez Panis and also provide a healthy nectar source.
To help bring this butterfly sanctuary to life, MALT provided a small grant as part of its Drought Resilience and Water Security (DRAWS) initiative. Through the DRAWS initiative, all Marin County agricultural producers were eligible for $15,000 grants for projects that developed water sources, added water storage, and increased water distribution. “We really couldn’t have built this monarch sanctuary without the support from MALT,” Ole shared. “We had the water, we just needed the infrastructure to get it where it needed to be.”
Today the project is bursting with the color of flowering plants. The rich blues of California lilac and sweet scent of lemon verbena invite other pollinators to the garden too—an ecological smorgasbord of drought tolerant, climate resilience goodness. And the sweat equity Ole has invested is beginning to pay dividends.
In late September of 2022, Ole spotted his first monarch on the ranch in years, an encouraging signal as his young garden began to take root. Later that year, citizen scientists counted more than 335,000 individuals across the state, up from the dismal counts of previous years. But while things are moving in the right direction, the future of this iconic species remains uncertain with the population still down over 90% from its historic size.
Despite the challenges, Ole remains optimistic, “I hope this work serves as a hopeful beacon, not just for the monarchs — but for all of us.”