The Decline of an Iconic Species: The Monarch Butterfly
Monarch butterflies have graced our yards, our childhood and our imagination. From teaching us metamorphosis to filling the sky during their great migration in the fall, they have been a mainstay from Mexico, across the Central plains and up to Ontario for thousands of years. Lately however, they have been making headlines for a different reason- they are in trouble. Big trouble.
A species that numbered 1 billion in 1996 hit an all time low of 33 million butterflies (.67 hectares) on their overwintering grounds in Mexico in 2013/2014. The 2014/2015 count, which was expected to at least double, came in at a disappointing 5 million butterflies (1.12 hectares). Up, but only by 69%. In 2013 The World Wildlife Fund declared the Monarch Migration endangered and in 2014 an official petition was made to US Fish and Wildlife Services to give the monarch butterfly protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Overwintering numbers for 2015/2016 generated a great deal of enthusiasm when released. The population was up 255% to 4.01 hectares. Shortly after the numbers were released and before the monarchs had enough good weather to begin their migration northward, a winter storm hit the monarch biosphere causing severe damage to the trees, and freezing temperatures followed days of rain. The damage is still being assessed but needless to say, it was a blow no one was expecting.
So what has caused the monarchs troubles? The easy answer is loss of habitat. The monarch caterpillar eats only one family of plants-milkweed. You often see milkweed growing on the side of highways and it was once very common in crop fields. There was enough milkweed to support hundreds of millions of monarch caterpillars. With the invention of GMO crops, that tolerate being sprayed by herbicides, the monarchs have lost the millions of acres of milkweed that once grew in between the row crops. Additionally another 2.2 million acres per year is lost due to development. All this adds up to a shortage of plants for the female to lay her eggs on and the caterpillars to eat.
But there is hope. A large effort is underway to plant milkweed and other native, nectar plants for the monarch in its breeding grounds and migration corridor. In September of 2015, $3.2 million dollars was made available through NFWF for projects related to creating habitat for the monarch butterfly. One of those grants landed in Kansas City, giving $229,868 to Burroughs Audubon and partners to create monarch habitat. Over 500,000 people wrote in support for protection of the monarch .
Individuals will play a big role in the recovery of the butterfly. There are over 45.6 million acres of yards in the US, mostly filled with turf grass. If everyone planted a little milkweed, along with some native nectar plants, the monarch would regain some of the habitat they have lost.
Here are some suggestions for creating monarch habitat in your yard:
-Plant at least a couple different species of milkweed. Some favorites are Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis)and if you have room- the Common milkweed (Aclepias syriaca) often seen growing on the side of the road. Common Milkweed is a monarch favorite. Just beware, Common milkweed will spread and so give it lots of space.
-Plant native nectar plants with different bloom times for the adult monarchs. Try coreopsis, monarda, coneflowers, asters and goldenrods.
-Eliminate pesticide use in your yard
Once you have created a little habitat for monarchs in your yard, from time to time carefully look under the leaves of the milkweed for the small, white, football shaped eggs or the striped caterpillars gently munching away. When they have found the haven you have created for them, take a moment to enjoy what it feels like to save a whimsical orange and black creature for the generations to come.