Known for eclectic shops, fine dining, coffee and craft brews, Pearl is also gaining a reputation as a valuable migration site for monarch butterflies in an effort to keep the population from dwindling.

Five commercially raised monarch butterflies tagged and released at the 2017 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival last fall at Pearl successfully migrated to Mexico in recent months, according to Texas Butterfly Ranch, a website dedicated to raising awareness about the iconic orange-and-black pollinator.

What’s more, Pearl’s location along the San Antonio River —  which is planted with indigenous milkweed (a host plant critical to monarch caterpillars) and other nectar-rich plants — makes it a beautiful and ideal setting, experts said.

Since pollinators including monarch butterflies play such an essential role in propping up the food system, supporting the festival has been a logical fit for Pearl, a top destination for foodies and cooking enthusiasts, officials said.

“For us here, it was interesting to learn that we are on the kind of migratory superhighway for these famous power pollinators in the form of the monarchs, but also to understand how in jeopardy this entire population is because of their dwindling environment where they do everything from lay their eggs, mate and the journey has become increasingly more perilous,” said Pearl chief marketing officer Elizabeth Fauerso.

Pearl is part of the Texas Funnel, which eastern monarchs squeeze through on their way to and from Mexico.

“We wanted to engage in activities that helped to raise awareness, get the community involved, and get people excited about having a stake in our role here in San Antonio,” Fauerso added.

Festival organizer and website founder Monika Maeckle said in a phone interview the Florida-raised butterflies were recovered at El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacán, the largest of the roosting site sanctuaries open to the public.

Maeckle said the successful migration helps mute criticism that releasing commercially reared butterflies is not a viable option.

“Some people think it muddies the gene pool, and others say, ‘Those butterflies are never going to migrate because they don’t know what they’re doing, because they’re raised in a coddled environment.’ But you know, guess what? We just proved you wrong,” she said.

According to Maeckle’s site, the five butterflies were part of 720 released and tagged at the festival. Although they constitute less than 1 percent of the total 928 tags recovered as part of the 2017 season, officials still consider that a significant number.

A list was compiled by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization based at the University of Kansas that monitors monarch butterflies found overwintering in the oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico.

In all, an estimated 80,000 monarch butterflies were tagged last year.

“I’m actually impressed that they had that many recoveries,” said Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor in a phone interview, noting that while naturally migrating butterflies have a much higher recovery rate, this is still a significant achievement. According to “The Monarchs are Missing: A Butterfly Mystery” by Rebecca E. Hirsch, scientists point to shrinking habitat, as well as climate change, pesticide use, deforestation and other factors as suspected contributors to the dramatic decline in the numbers of eastern monarchs, which each year engage in a multigenerational round-trip journey that spans up to 3,000 miles between Mexico and Canada through all states east of the Rocky Mountains.

In 2015, after the monarch’s overwintering numbers in Mexico had plummeted by more than 90 percent from a high in the late 1990s, San Antonio took action and was named the first “Monarch Champion City” by the National Wildlife Federation. The city took a series of steps to create more monarch habitat and raise awareness.

Maeckle said the festival, which began in 2016, has been an integral part of the effort. Last year, about 10,000 attendees had the opportunity to witness the dramatic eruption of the monarchs from a custom-made mariposa pyramid, and some even got to experience tagging them with stickers, identifying their sex, writing down the data and releasing them via one-on-one demonstrations by docents moving through the crowd.

“Not only is it a great learning experience and inspirational moment when people get to engage with an insect, but it’s also that maybe there is a role for (commercially reared insects) somewhere in the rebuilding of the monarch migrating population,” Maeckle said.

The 2018 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival is Oct. 19-21 at Pearl.

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