Monarch (and BABIES) on the Ranch and Near Disaster Leads to More Adaptive Management

Monarch caterpillars eating

As I write this, I am still breathless. We have monarchs! We have monarch babies! Thank goodness for Ron’s monitoring project. It has required me to check on the A. Californica (AC) patches regularly. It was one such monitoring effort I went on earlier this week that produced the greatest joy to occupy my heart since, well, since the week when I found the ACs. I guess I find many moments of joy in life!

On Wednesday, March 16th, I decided to check on the ACs during my lunch hour. It was such a beautiful day with a very slight cool breeze, no clouds in the sky. I felt compelled to get away from my desk and enjoy the out-of-doors for a bit. Gratefully, I work from home, which enables me to seamlessly move from inside to outside during breaks in my day.

The monitoring project requires me to note date of emergence, flowering, when seed pods are set and when the seed pods have opened. It also requires monthly measurements. I have been going to the patches semi-regularly to check – semi-regularly because the largest one is well away from the house up a 6% slope. It takes some effort to get there. Ok, let me get to the good part! So, I decided to take a walk through the riparian area. I saw some other butterflies, sat around by the spring creek for a while observing and checking on the Xerces plants.

This put me on a course to access the large AC patch (AC2) from the east already near the top of the hill. First, however, I checked on the other two smaller patches. In AC4, the two plants were small but already flowering. In AC3, the plant was still small, but healthy.

I finally got to the large patch with several tall, mature plants that were already beginning to flower. All the flowering shocked me because this was quick and very early. It was in this muddle of thought and calculating from my experiences last year when out of thin air I catch some movement to the east. It was a monarch butterfly flying around. WHAAAT?! Could I believe my eyes? I fumbled with the phone camera trying, but failing monumentally, to capture a photo. I even turned the camera app off accidentally in my excitement. Then, it was gone, and I got nothin’. Oh how I hated myself.

Seeing the monarch made me wonder about babies. I took a close look at the AC plants. I saw quite a bit of holes on one mature plant. Looking closer…there they were, the most beautiful sight, monarch caterpillars – monarch babies, the progeny of this magnificent, healthy, beautiful adult who graced me with her presence – the future of the species attached to leaves all over the milkweed. I counted 15 caterpillars. I looked at all of the other plants. Nothing. There was some evidence of eating on one, but I didn’t see anything…at the time.

I sat down next to the main caterpillar nursery plant and contemplated my luck. I sang to the plants and caterpillars a little butterfly song I made up on the spot. Quietly, I hoped I would see the adult monarch again. I was singing to her too. A hawk flew over me. I called to it. A blue belly lizard made its way up on top of a rock not too far from me and began doing his push-ups – letting me know this was his territory. There is so much to see and hear when you give yourself time to sit quietly in one place.

Out of thin air, again, like magic, she appeared. She landed on another milkweed. She coasted close to the earth downhill. I saw her glide just above the range and then land well away from me. There is much lupine blooming, so perhaps that is what she was after. Then she zigged. She zagged. She came back up the mountain right on a course towards me. I was wearing pink, so maybe she thought I was a flower. The entire time I had my camera at the ready. I got a couple distant photos and had not taken off the zoom when she approached me. As a result, I only got the edge of her wing, but what a gorgeous, sensational piece of wing that was!

And just like that, she disappeared. Although I was there for an hour and a half, she did not reappear. I turned my attention to the milkweeds again. I wanted to convince myself this was not a dream. The caterpillars continued their ravenous march across the leaves completely unaware of my ecstasy. Satisfied this was reality, I made my way down hill toward home to complete the rest of the workday.

That night, I had trouble staying asleep. I woke at 2:30am. Beauty is never without its price. I realized I was nervous. Like a parent waiting for their child to let them know they arrived somewhere safely, I found myself pacing, waiting for the sun to rise. The cattle were on my side of the ranch, and I had some concerns for the safety of the plants, and with them, the caterpillars. I went outside and saw the cattle all sleeping on the driveway. I felt better to see their inactivity, but also uneasy knowing how close they were to the site. I went back inside resolving to keep a close watch when it became light out.

Disaster! I fell asleep at some point and woke to the bright sun shining on my face and a kitten on my chest. How did this happen?! How could I not have woken up at sunrise and especially when my furry baby made a little nest on my person?! I bolted toward the window where my fears were realized. The cattle were up on the steep slope grazing, and there was one right next to the incubator plant. Quicker than I have moved in about a year, I jumped into my muck boots, threw on a vest over my scant pajamas and put on a hat fleeing out the door and into the range before me. Ran down the driveway, through the gate, made a hard right, nearly tumbled down the hill toward Site 2 and the arroyo, then ran as hard as possible up the mighty hill, navigating rocks and gopher holes, up and up until I reached the babies.

Cows in milkweed patch

I gently shooed the cows away, downhill, away from this prize. It wasn’t their fault. They are doing what they are meant to do. With the drought and almost no forage, these tall green plants now look more enticing, and the cows are willing to give the bitter, toxic plant a chance. They can’t help themselves, and I still love them. But gosh darn – the plant had been grazed. Two tall stocks were missing. I rapidly looked all over the plant, counting again and again to make sure. There were twelve. Three caterpillars were missing.

We were all in luck. The largest of the caterpillars was safe. This one is perhaps just a day from moving into its chrysalis stage. I also looked at all of the milkweed plants again. I found two caterpillars on another large plant, and one on a third mature milkweed. Is it coincidence that I found three more or perhaps did the caterpillars drop as the cow snipped off the stem and made their way to another plant? Probably not. I probably just missed them the previous day – but I will never know.

The Need to Balance

The term “adaptive management” refers to making decisions based on realities present on the ground. After the very close call with the cows, I waited until later that morning and texted my cattleman. He has had the cattle on a rotation cycle between the south and north parts of the ranch since he bought the business from my old cattleman. This practice is a good one. It attempts to mimic the movement of grass-eating large mammals that roamed rangeland before Europeans arrived. He is always watching what is happening on the ground and makes the decision when to move them based on the amount of feed or water and other things as well. For much of the recent past, the cattle have been on a 14 day rotation, but he has rotated them at 10 day intervals too. Last Friday marked day 10. I hoped that perhaps this could be close enough to be ok to shift the cows. I asked him what was possible.

Tom was a bit on edge. It has been a bad year. He lost tens of calves in the high country due to bears. He is almost out of water on a leased piece of ground up the road from me, and the drought has left very little grass for the cattle to eat. He has been spending thousands on hay – to supplement the lack of grass. Just like any business, you want your inputs to be less than the output — and the greater that difference can be the better. It means more profit. I understand.

Tom didn’t want to deviate from his plan. I also did not want to make impacts to the neighbor’s ground that would be bad, but I said, “Let’s talk this through.” I wanted to walk through all of the actions and consequences to see what was reality and what was just reactionary. I had offered to compensate for a week’s worth of hay if that was what was needed to move the cows. He didn’t think that would make a difference. Ok. He politely said with a slight tone of stress, “Pardon me, but I am looking at three caterpillars versus thousands of dollars in feed, and I don’t see that computing.” I said, “Ok, let’s dig into that ‘thousands of dollars in feed’. I just offered to pay for the feed you would be missing from this side by moving them. So what do you mean? The entire ranch is a golf course. To me, it is nearly the same on each side of the ranch.” He acknowledged that was true.

We talked about insurances, Farm Bill supports, who was getting what. He vented. The stress reduced, and he asked about how long the caterpillars would need to be done. He had planned on coming out here the next day to take a look at what was left. He could move the cattle. It ended up being one half dozen or the other. He could hit that side a little more, but for 10 days instead of 14 and then come back. If there was rain, we would have that much more over on the north.

We had a plan.

Still, I said “Think on it overnight, and we can make a final plan tomorrow. I can make a temporary fence if I have to. I will have just enough time.”

This meant the plants would need some safety over night. I decided I would camp near the milkweed patch to prevent any more grazing of the plants. My husband was not happy. He is from Los Angeles, a city boy. His mind went straight to coyotes, mountain lions and rabid something or others. He did concede that bears wouldn’t make their way down from the higher country just to get me -though the thought had crossed his mind. I was neither concerned nor deterred. I loaded up the very basics of camping gear and set off with my trusty canine companions.

There was only one cow in view far off in the distance as the sun set. It was beautiful. It being a Friday night, there was more traffic on the road and a small plane flew overhead. I could see the twinkle of my neighbor’s lights begin to turn on as the sun sank and the wisps of light began to fade away. There was a cool breeze, then the smell of flowers. Oh my goodness, really?! The milkweed flowers were just beginning to emerge from their duff-covered encasement. Not many had released themselves, so it was just a hint, a distant echo of what is to come. I settled into my bag. I thought about the cows settling down too. It was just then that David turned on our festive strand of cafe style lights on the back patio – like there was some kind of carnival happening without me at home. It looked beautiful from my hilltop vantage. He called me – one last effort to coax me back home so he wouldn’t have to worry. He said, “HB, you know, the cows will be sleeping. You can come home and just get up before dawn. I can have your whiskey and soda waiting for you.” Damn, that boy’s smart and a smooth operator. I double checked the data on cattle grazing, and reassured myself that they would be stationary for the night. Indeed, I saw them just the day before laying allover the driveway sleeping. I was convinced – and Beatrix had been whining. I made the careful trek home in the dark. The full moon had not yet risen. It was just giving us all a taste of its presence, illuminating the edge of the high country and hills with a band of light.

I had mixed feelings. What if a cow decided to eat in the night? It is so incredible out here, shouldn’t I just stay? I had not had much sleep the night before and knew I would not sleep well if I stayed out under the stars. Ah heck, it was best if I slept in my bed and just beat the cows to sunrise. I made peace with the decision. It worked out too. I got some solid sleep for 5 hours and awoke to wind and clouds having moved in over night. I put on my clothes and headed out to make sure there were no interlopers to the milkweed patch. I stayed well away down hill from the patch. No need to be up there more than necessary. It was incredible, but overcast and windy. All was well. The cattle came at about 6:45am. They began to make their way toward the site little by little. Then, they turned the opposite way opting for lower ground and nestled themselves near the swale pond. Unknowingly, I was flanked on the other side by two mamas and 4 babies. They saw me, saw I had no hay, and kept on moving, never once looking in the direction of the milkweed, not climbing the hill. They joined the others at swale pond. The patch is protected for now. Tom decided to move the cows on Sunday. Thinking on it overnight he figured it would actually work out better for him given his other commitments and an upcoming trip. For me, I will have one more day of fatigue monitoring the cattle. It is a small price to pay, and I will worry about that tomorrow. Today, the caterpillars, and all of us, whether we recognize it or not, win.

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