A battle for butterfly conservation at Morro Bay GC

GCSAA Class A superintendent Josh Heptig is dogged in his effort to protect and preserve monarch butterflies.


Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies have found a home at Morro Bay Golf Course in Morro Bay, Calif., where GCSAA Class A superintendent Josh Heptig oversees the facility. Photos by Kingston Leong

About seven years ago, Josh Heptig, director of golf course operations for the San Luis Obispo County Parks & Recreation in central California, visited inhabitants of homes adjacent to Morro Bay Golf Course in Morro Bay, Calif. to talk about trees. After consulting with California Poly San Luis Obispo professor emeritus Kingston Leong, Heptig replanted a total of 130 Monterey Cypress trees at the course over the last decade. While that may not seem odd, the reason why is intriguing: Monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterfly population decline is supremely evident to Heptig, a 23-year GCSAA Class A member who received the association’s President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship in 2017. In the 1990s, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation noted that hundreds of millions of monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in fir forests in central Mexico.

More than a million monarchs once overwintered in forested groves on the California coast at places like Morro Bay. Now, researchers and community scientists estimate that only a fraction of the population remains. A decline of approximately 70% has been seen in central Mexico and a decline of over 90% has been seen in California. A major reason for population reduction in Morro Bay (in addition to wildfires) is the loss of pine trees due to Pitch canker, a disease Heptig says wiped out hundreds of trees that served as protection for the monarchs, whose habitats are screened from the wind by those trees.

After Heptig replaced the course’s lost Monterey Cypress, he spoke to people who live nearby, whose homes’ ocean views might have been curtailed. Their responses?

“It was all right. The neighbors and I agreed the tree replacement served us both,” says Heptig, who oversees three golf courses for the county.

Kingston Leong says he wasn’t surprised those conversations succeeded. He couldn’t imagine a better ambassador than Heptig. “He went into their homes. He didn’t antagonize them. He worked with them. He knows how to work with the public,” Leong says.

Butterfly tour
Butterfly grove tours are a major part at Morro Bay GC. Attendees of all ages are regulars at the tours.

Monarch butterflies arrive in mid-September every year at Morro Bay, a coastal city in San Luis Obispo County that is known in part as an outdoor mecca for its beaches and mountain biking and kayaking, as well as for Morro Rock, an over 570-foot volcanic plug located near the harbor entrance.

At the golf courses, monarchs suck dew off of the turf. Heptig says that locals and visitors come for monarch tours that begin after Halloween.

“I grew up in Kansas, watching them fly through as they make their way to Mexico City. I always thought it was amazing to see,” Heptig says.

In fact, on occasion the monarch tours outperform the number of golfers. “One day in 2019 we had 189 (tour participants) and 153 playing golf,” Heptig says. “People love the butterfly tours.” Golf, though, is an important part of the overall theme. In October, the Morro Bay Women’s Golf Club will host their annual Monarch Invitational Tournament, an event that a club member started long ago because she cared for the butterflies.

As for tree additions to buoy the butterfly grove, Morro Bay GC participated over a decade ago in an environmental education and course improvement program called Live Green, A partnership between The Toro Co. and Audubon International that included GCSAA superintendents and 900 youths that were part of the First Tee program. Live Green brought attention to the environmental side of golf and golf courses and informed young people on ways to give back to their community and help the environment.

planting event
Area youth had a hand in planting pines at Morro Bay golf course. The trees’ presence are important to creating a safe and welcoming habitat for the monarch butterflies.

When the kids see Heptig around the county, he says, they’ll ask about their plantings. “They’ll say, ‘hey, you’re the golf guy. How’s my tree doing?’ They’re invested,” Heptig says.

Morro Bay GC has many owl boxes and a bluebird house trail. In time, Heptig wants to add a monarch interpretive trail. “The plan is for an enclosed pathway to get people safely across the course to the grove,” he says. His wish list includes synthetic barriers to help with wind protection for butterflies nesting in trees until the recently planted trees grow tall enough to block the winds.

Leong says he appreciates Heptig’s pragmatic approach to environmental stewardship.

“What I like about him is he is very responsible managing the grove and tying it in with everything. “He’s very progressive,” Leong says. “He’s trying to develop their (butterfly) habitat, and he’s very willing to do that.”

Heptig family
Heptig and his family at the 2019 U.S. Open. Photo courtesy of Josh Heptig

According to Heptig, the butterflies usually leave the property in March. Some are stragglers until early April, he says. He will be there upon their return, no matter how many of them come back.

“The butterflies chose our course. Our goal is to be a good steward or host while providing something special for our community,” Heptig says.

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.