Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly populations have dropped to critically low numbers.

Last week, the peaceful transfer of power in our Capitol was a symbol of how—for 245 years—we’ve prevented the rise of a western monarch. This democracy was founded in opposition to the idea of monarchies, and the functioning of democracy can be a source of pride.

But I’m not here to talk politics. I only mention the inauguration to make a bit of wordplay. Because an invertebrate species of Western Monarch is currently being vanquished by accident. And that should be cause for alarm.

Earlier last week, the Xerces Society (an international non-profit focused on the conservation of invertebrates), announced that the population of monarch butterflies who spend the winter along the California coast is nearing collapse. For the past few years, volunteer counters have found fewer than 30,000 butterflies overwintering in the groves. Those were record lows, and cause for alarm. This year, the community scientists counted a mere 1,914 monarch butterflies. That’s 99.9% fewer butterflies than were found in the 1980s. And still, there exists no legal protection for them or their essential habitat.

Western Monarchs aren’t all of the monarchs, though. The black-and-orange beauties who spend summers with us in the hot and humid Midwest have migrated to remote oyamel fir tree forests in the mountains west of Mexico City. They are enduring an unusually cold winter there, and official counts have not yet been completed. We can only hope that their numbers won’t show the same precipitous decline as their western counterparts.

The odds are not in our favor.

Last year, the monarchs overwintering in Mexico exhibited a 53% drop.

The details of each population’s decline are slightly different, but the big picture holds true: their demise is driven by the loss of habitat for overwintering, breeding, and migration; and by pesticide use.

In the past, it was easy to blame our southern neighbor for the decline. Illegal logging in the mountainous butterfly preserves of Mexico was a major problem, but that has largely been addressed by the Mexican government. There is still more to be done with supporting the region’s economy so that the locals won’t need to extract resources from the protected forests, but the biggest challenge to the monarch’s struggle for survival is no longer across an international border. It is right here in the US, in the ever-more-productive Corn Belt where I grew up.

In early spring, monarchs will head north again—hoping to lay their eggs on fresh milkweed plants in Texas before they breathe their last butterfly breath.

But what if there isn’t any milkweed? Drought, cold weather, and habitat loss have all caused its decline. And the challenges continue as generations of monarchs leap-frog north into the Midwest. Farming practices have changed a lot since my Grandpa Warren hunted pheasants among habitat-rich fencerows and pastures in southern Iowa.

Since the first genetically modified (GMO), herbicide-resistant soybeans were introduced in 1997 (with GMO corn following shortly), there has been an 80% decline in milkweed in the Midwest, and a concurrent 81% decline in monarchs. In Iowa, one biologist estimates there has been a 98% reduction in milkweed on the landscape. While GMO products have garnered support among some scientists, the changes that GMOs have caused in our farming practices and the subsequent habitat loss for many organisms (not just monarchs) are a significant bit of collateral damage.

Although habitat loss is the biggest problem, it’s one that you can help address! Now is the time when eager gardeners start making plans for spring. Every additional back-yard milkweed plant and un-sprayed flower garden could host one more caterpillar, and provide nectar for hundreds of pollinators.

But gardens like these are not going to make up for millions of acres of corn and soybeans. Large conservation efforts—and sustainable farming practices—also are necessary. You can help there, too, by choosing carefully at the grocery store, by supporting the organizations doing good work, and by letting your representatives at all levels of government know that you value conservation efforts.

Should we work hard and make sacrifices just to save a single species of butterfly? Well, yes. But we also should work to save the monarchs because in doing so we will be conserving nature for ourselves and for our kids.

Emily Stone is a naturalist and educator at the Cable Natural History Museum. For more than 50 years the museum has served to connect people to the Northwoods. The museum is currently closed but current exhibits are available online. Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer is now available at www.cabelmuseum.org/books or at redberybooks.com.

(Copyright © 2021 APG Media)

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