The monarch butterflies at Ellwood may have had a tough year, having to weather a second year of drought conditions, less growth of a plant critical to their survival and unfavorable wind conditions that decreased their numbers.

But low population due to human development near their home to the west of Isla Vista will not be a factor if local and national nonprofit organizations can secure $20.4 million to buy the land and end a 15-year dispute over it.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national conservation organization, and Friends of the Ellwood Coast (FOTEC), a local advocacy group, are working together to raise the first installment of $6 million by June 30 to pay the developers they once fought. This announcement came at a press conference at the end of January, where attendees raised $11,000 within the first hour and the Goleta Valley Land Trust said it would match $500,000 raised by TPL. Currently, the organizations are applying for grants and approaching private donors.

Goletans have fought development in the Ellwood Mesa area for approximately 40 years, originally against plans for a shopping center, Goleta city councilwoman Cynthia Brock said at a meeting on Friday. Dispute between the Santa Barbara Development Partnership (SBDP), which owns the Ellwood Mesa land, and advocates wanting to protect open space and the butterflies intensified over the last 15 years.

The Trust for Public Land and FOTEC formed an agreement last July with Comstock Homes and the SBDP, which owns the 137 acres directly south of the eucalyptus trees where the butterflies gather from September to February every year. The $20.4 million would pay for two-thirds of the Ellwood Mesa land while a separate agreement with Goleta would swap 38 acres of land in the Santa Barbara Shores Park (SBSP) area to pay for the other third, said Suzanne Moss, the Gaviota Coast Program director for TPL. The agreement gives TPL exclusive rights to buy the property.

Bob Comstock of Comstock Homes became involved with the project two and a half years ago, but learned about the possibility of a land swap a little over a year ago. Santa Barbara County first proposed a swap over five years ago, but Comstock said the developers at the time ignored that option. As part of the new swap, Comstock and the SBSP will be allowed to build 78 units on the 38 acres in the park. The venture will not be as profitable as past development plans for the Ellwood Mesa land that included 130 housing units in 2001, but Comstock said the swap was necessary and that the land should be conserved.

“Once I understood [the swap] and started working on it, it seemed like the right thing to do,” Comstock said. “Are we giving up something? Yes. Are we doing something that is good for the whole region? Yes.”

The TPL and FOTEC must raise $6 million from private entities as a sign of local support, Moss said. After that, the two organizations can apply for federal and state grants to cover the other $14 million.

“We need a very strong local show of private support,” Moss said. “We absolutely need to raise $6 million privately and up front.”

IF TPL and FOTEC do not make the deadline, Comstock said he would look at other options to see how realistic it is to meet the goal but would not break the agreement.

“No one wants the development rights to go back to the Mesa,” he said.

FOTEC was founded three years ago though many of its members have been fighting development since the late 1980s. Christina Lange, a co-founder of FOTEC and longtime advocate of the monarchs, said members of FOTEC would hold office hours at Mojo Coffee and other local businesses where they will talk about the campaign to purchase the blufftop land.

Any disturbances close to the monarchs could stop them from gathering at the site, according to a 1999 study by the Paso Robles environmental consulting firm Althouse and Meade. The eucalyptus grove regulates temperature in the butterfly habitat and provides the monarchs with shelter from harsh weather. Humans can harm that by developing the area or even by removing a tree, according to the study, “Monarch Overwintering in Santa Barbara County.”

This year, there have been fewer than 10,000 monarch butterflies in the Ellwood grove – far fewer than the 100,000 that usually make their winter homes amongst the eucalyptus trees. The population drop this season was caused by disturbances outside of human hands.

Female monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed plants and monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, which gives monarchs their bitter taste and provides a defense against predators. The three species of milkweed found around Santa Barbara declined in the past two years due to drought conditions, which lowered the number of caterpillars with each generation, said Adrian Wenner, UCSB professor emeritus of ecology, evolution and marine biology.

“If there isn’t any more rain then we may have the same circumstances of milkweed drying up too early and no caterpillars,” Wenner said.

The surviving monarchs had a harder time getting to the coast because the Santa Ana winds that blow over the Sierras toward the coast did not occur in September and October, when monarchs are ready to migrate.

“Any monarch in the Sierras that goes in the air can be wafted to the coast in no time,” Wenner said. “It has to happen at this time or then there’s no monarchs.”

Any butterflies still left at Ellwood are most likely males since January is the mating season and females leave shortly after to lay eggs, Lange said.

People who wish to donate to the Save Ellwood Mesa campaign can call Moss at (415) 495-5660 or Carla Frisk at (805) 350-3811.