Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Saving the Monarch

Monarch butterfly on milkweed photographed in my backyard last summer.
Monarch butterflies are one of those charismatic animals, like pandas or Bald Eagles, that it seems everyone wants to save. All this good will makes one wonder how they came to be in such trouble in the first place.

And make no mistake, the Monarch is in big trouble. In the late 1990s, the butterfly's population was about one billion individuals. In the past few years that has fallen by 90 percent. That is a catastrophic decline any way you look at it.

Humans have finally begun to take notice of that decline and to actually admit that they might have a little bit to do with it. For a species that finds it hard to acknowledge that global climate change is happening, even in the face of overwhelming scientific data, that admission is a big step.

Having admitted culpability, many are seeking ways to make amends and to reverse the butterfly's trend toward extinction. On Monday, a major effort in that regard was announced. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is teaming up with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in launching a $3.2 million campaign to save the Monarch.   

The focus of the campaign will be an effort to restore the growth of milkweed plants across the mid-section of the country. The life cycle of the Monarch is totally dependent upon milkweed, and homeowners and farmers have largely destroyed the plants across a huge swath of the continent with the profligate use of herbicides. The campaign aims to regrow it by the masses.

An announcement on the National Wildlife Federation's website lists six ways that they hope to accomplish their aim. 


  1. Help Save Grasslands – America’s native grasslands are critically important for monarchs. They offer both milkweed for monarch caterpillars as well as nectar plants for adult butterflies (and many other pollinators too). Today, more than 90 percent of native grasslands have been converted to cropland and development. Grasslands are disappearing faster than any other ecosystem in North America, and that’s a big problem for monarchs. Join NWF in fighting to save grasslands for monarchs.
  2. Support Highway Habitat Corridor – NWF and USFWS are working to create a coalition of agriculture leaders and highway transportation organizations to plant milkweed and nectar plants along monarch migratory flyways and in other important monarch breeding grounds along key Midwest and Texas corridors. Learn more about highway habitat corridor plan and how to support it.
  3. Plant Milkweed – You can make saving the monarch personal by planting milkweed in your yard or garden. There are many milkweed species found in North America, so no matter where you live, there’s at least one species native to your area. You’ll be rewarded not only with the knowledge that you are making a difference, but by attracting monarchs to enjoy. Find out what milkweeds are from your region.
  4. Don’t Use Pesticides – Monarchs are insects, and so spraying insecticides will kill them. Make the commitment to avoid spraying pesticides in your yard. Find out how to garden organically.
  5. Create Monarch Habitat– NWF’s Garden for Wildlife program can teach you how to turn any outdoor space into a complete habitat for monarch. Just provide food, water, cover and places to raise young. It all starts with what you plant and you can create a habitat garden in your own yard, at your office, your church or the local school grounds. Entire communities are launching efforts to create monarch habitat. Learn how to create a wildlife-friendly garden.
  6. Join NWF Affiliate Efforts in Your State — Eleven of NWF’s state affiliates are active partners in the Garden for Wildlife program, teaching people how to create habitat for monarchs and other wildlife. They offer regional expertise and resources, offering native milkweed seeds, running monarch tagging and citizen science efforts and even working on legislative solutions. Joining these efforts is a great way to get involved on the local level. Find out if your state’s NWF affiliate is working to protect monarchs.
Perhaps the most important thing from NWF's list is to plant native milkweeds, if you want to be a part of the effort to save Monarchs. Tropical milkweeds have found their way into many gardens, including my own, in recent years, but there is controversy about their use. There is some evidence that the tropical plants may actually be harming the butterflies, messing with their migratory instincts. To be safe, we should make the effort to find native milkweed seed or plants for our gardens. These are the plants that Monarchs have evolved with over the centuries so we know that they are safe.

If we can restore enough milkweed to support increasing numbers of new Monarchs, then perhaps we can provide some insurance for the species against a devastating weather event that can wipe out 75 percent of the wintering population in Mexico, as happened in 2002. The Monarch population was at a healthier size back then. If such an event happened now, it is unlikely that the species could survive.

Yes, Monarchs are beautiful and charismatic and we want to save them. The key to saving them is to provide food for their babies. A Monarch cannot become a Monarch until it first finishes being a caterpillar. There must be a message there - for all of us.

Future Monarchs, happily munching milkweed.

4 comments:

  1. I've been doing everything I can but I saw less Monarchs last year than in previous years. This year I have ordered some native Milkweed (what I have grown up till now has been the red and yellow tropical variety.) They love it, but apparently it can cause disease. Can't wait for my native milkweed to get here.

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    1. I'm going to be planting native milkweed this year also. I've had some in the past, but it has never done well for me and the tropical plants do flourish here. But I'm hoping that what I'm getting this year will thrive and provide healthier sustenance for the Monarchs and Queens that pass through my garden.

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  2. Beautiful pictures, Dorothy. It's such a sad trend...Hopefully we can reverse it before it's too late!

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    1. We do what we can. It doesn't seem like much, but maybe if everybody does just a little, it will all add up and be enough.

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