Pacific Grove calls itself "Butterfly Town USA." The monarchs are treated with celebrity status. When the butterflies are there during the mild winter months, tourist flock and businesses thrive.
This year though, butterfly viewing required patience.
"We've seen four at one time," said sanctuary visitor Paul Cook. "That was a find, yep."
In November of 2008, thousands of butterflies hung from the eucalyptus trees in Pacific Grove's Monarch Grove Sanctuary. This year was dismal by comparison.
"We had about 900 at our peak this year. Often, we have as many as 15 to 25,000 in the grove," explained sanctuary docent Laurel Robertson.
Many people blame an aggressive tree-trimming operation in the sanctuary for decimating the monarch habitat. City staff authorized the cutting, but did not even follow Pacific Grove's own rules for protecting its treasured insect.
Mayor Carmelita Garci admits mistakes were made.
"It was a travesty as you look at it and the impact that it had on a lot of aspects for Pacific Grove," she said.
The tree trimming is a huge controversy in Pacific Grove, but scientists say there is a much broader concern with an overall decline in monarch numbers statewide.
A Cal Poly researcher says monarch numbers at other Central Coast overwintering sites are down as much as 90 percent. Suspected causes range from the drought, to changes in migration, to global warming.
"There's all sorts of factors requiring careful study and a more integrated approach to the research," said Lori Mannel of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.
Pacific Grove is meeting with monarch experts on Wednesday to move past its mistakes and learn what it can about better protecting the butterflies at home and statewide.
Note: Pacific Grove was so aggressive in trimming trees, in part, because a falling limb killed somebody there several years ago and the city faced a large lawsuit.