A monarch butterfly lands on a flower at Gill Tract Farm. Credit: Gill Tract Farm

High in the branches of the eucalyptus, pine, cypress and redwood trees on Gill Tract Farm, a cluster of monarch butterflies has found a home. Amid a dramatic decline in monarch populations across the state, the 57 butterflies overwintering at the Albany farm in 2020 marked Gill Tract as the the fifth-largest overwintering site in California that year and the largest in the East Bay.

But UC Berkeley has had plans to develop near the grove since 1998. Nearby Sprouts Farmers Market and a senior housing project were completed in 2017. And a 760-bed, apartment-style building for grad students is slated for construction this fall. The new project will triple the university’s housing for single graduate students and bring a parking lot, a new small agricultural building and a recreation center to the site.

Since January, a group of volunteers from Gill Tract Farm has been advocating for UC Berkeley to consider the monarch’s fragile presence. On Wednesday, the Board of Regents approved updated development plans with the intention of mitigating harm to the habitat.

A monarch expert will now develop a butterfly habitat management plan for how best to plant trees to reduce changes to the heat, wind and light conditions at the grove, based on recommendations from an initial environmental assessment. The analysis, commissioned by UC Berkeley in April and completed in late June, also advised that the school protect the existing trees the monarchs are sheltering in, many of which are stressed for water or dying.

UC Berkeley commissioned the environmental analysis because of the monarchs’ declining numbers, a decision that was “supported by comment letters from the Xerces Society and the community farm,” according to Kyle Gibson, spokesperson for Capital Strategies, UC Berkeley’s development arm.

“These tiny pockets of land, these cracks in the concrete, deserve to be respected and protected,” said Neeka Salmasi, who leads the farm’s monarch preservation efforts.

The Gill Tract advocates are hopeful the new measures will be enough to preserve the monarch habitat.

“I’m optimistic that there’s potential to have a win-win, where the UC is able to receive more students and we’re also able to take care of the land, and have those things be a symbiotic relationship,” said Effie Rawlings, a community organizer and farmer at the Gill Tract.

Declining monarch populations

In January 2020, Gill Tract farmers learned that the Xerces Society, a nonprofit focused on protecting monarchs in California, had recorded monarchs there for the first time. Though the farmers had noticed monarchs at the site for years, this was the first time an official count had ever been made by Xerces. Within a month, UC Berkeley also held its first Zoom meeting with Gill Tract, explaining the next stage of development, which did not include measures to protect monarchs.

A map in the final addendum to the project shows monarch butterfly locations and the proposed development sites.

Much has changed for the state’s monarchs since UC Berkeley first outlined development plans near Gill Tract in 1998. California’s overwintering monarch populations have declined more than 99% since the 1980s, when 4.5 million monarch butterflies passed the winter months in the state, according to Xerces Society records. The population has taken an even greater nose dive in recent years. Last year, fewer than 1,800 were counted in California. In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is warranted to list monarchs as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but they have not yet been added to the list.

“In the past, 57 butterflies wouldn’t have been that impressive, but with how small the population is, even really small numbers are really important,” said Emma Pelton, a senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society. Every butterfly matters “when we’re talking about a species on the brink of extinction,” Rawlings said.

The new development will be adjacent to the monarch overwintering site and would not cut down any trees where the monarchs live. But monarchs are so sensitive that even nearby development could affect the habitat, according to the Xerces Society.

“Overwintering microclimates can be easily altered by tree removal, tree trimming, and development. Sometimes, just the simple loss of a wind buffer that may consist of a single tree or tree limb may be enough to later the microclimatic conditions to make as [sic] site no longer suitable as overwintering habitat for monarch butterflies,” Stephanie McKnight, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society wrote in a March letter to Capital Strategies.

Advocating for butterflies

Effie Rawlings leads a community design workshop at Gill Tract Farm in February, pointing to the future site of UC Berkeley’s graduate student housing. Photo: Rourke Healey

Leaning on its history of activism, Gill Tract’s advocacy machine kicked into high gear. (The farm was born in 2013 after its founders protested UC Berkeley’s development plans near the plot in what they called the Occupy the Farm movement. Occupy the Farm has argued that Gill Tract historically spanned the land that UC Berkeley has already developed.)

Together with Rawlings and Rourke Healey, another volunteer, Salmasi wrote a report about the monarch populations on the farm and sent it to Capital Strategies in January. The farmers held two community workshops to share information about the development project and collect input. The Xerces Society wrote its own advocacy letter on behalf of the monarchs in March. Then, they waited.

As the date the Board of Regents would vote on the plan drew nearer, the Gill Tract coalition grew increasingly concerned: They still had not heard from UC Berkeley. Then, during a Zoom meeting about monarch preservation in July, the farmers received an email from Capital Strategies with surprise good news. The environmental analysis commissioned by UC Berkeley had been completed, and the school planned to hire a monarch expert to develop a detailed mitigation plan.

“The campus acknowledges that … the monarch butterfly population in North America has continued to decline precipitously” since 2004, Gibson wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “The campus is committed to the sustainable development of natural and biological resources and takes our obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act seriously.”

Monterey cypress and coast redwood trees where monarchs were seen. Credit: Althouse and Meade

The proposed development will “not result in any direct impacts” to the monarch’s habitat, nor will the noise from the construction site disturb the monarchs, who lack “auditory organs,” the initial environmental assessment found. But the report acknowledged that indirect effects on wind, heat, and light conditions could be significant.

In addition to the habitat management plan, Gill Tract Farm will get access to an office, kitchen, and classroom inside the Rauser College of Natural Resources’ new building. An industrial food processor will also be installed on the farm.

But butterfly advocates are hesitant to celebrate.

The plan approved Wednesday is encouraging, but the advocates say it’s not necessarily a guarantee of environmental protections, raising concerns about whether the habitat could be damaged if the parking lot is built before tree buffers are planted and whether the parking lot will deprive the already drought-stressed monarch tree grove of groundwater.

“The devil’s in the details,” Rawlings said. The group wrote another letter to David Ackerly, Dean of the College of Natural Resources, outlining its outstanding concerns. They want to see a timeline for mitigation measures, a commitment to caring for the Village Creek to improve groundwater, and a public mural that brings attention to the monarch habitat, among other requests.

UC Berkeley expects to complete the project by summer 2024. It remains to be seen the extent to which the monarchs will be protected.

Correction: The new housing development will add 760 new beds, not 820.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...