Wild Ideas: $3.2 million to restore monarch butterfly habitat

Adult monarchs feed on a variety of nectar plants, including this Liatris pycnostachya, a native of the Midwest, at Bruce and Susan Jones’ naturalized property near the town of Washington.
Adult monarchs feed on a variety of nectar plants, including this Liatris pycnostachya, a native of the Midwest, at Bruce and Susan Jones’ naturalized property near the town of Washington.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

During this cold winter, little good news has landed in my email inbox — until last week.

I received a press release (dated Feb. 9) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcing that the Service, in an effort to save the monarch butterfly, has signed a cooperative agreement with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and announced a major new funding initiative with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

The new initiative is a cooperative effort aimed at building “a network of diverse conservation partners and stakeholders to protect and restore important monarch habitat, while also reaching out to Americans of all ages who can play a central role,” the press release says. The Service pledged an additional $2 million in immediate funding for on-the-ground conservation projects around the country and kickstarted the new NFWF Monarch Conservation Fund with $1.2 million, to be matched by other private and public donors.

Monarchs are found across the United States and as recently as 1996 numbered “some 1 billion,” but their numbers have declined by approximately 90 percent in recent years, according to the release. As I noted in my Jan. 8 column, monarch populations historically are much smaller in Virginia, especially in forested areas, but they have declined to alarming levels here, too. Recent butterfly counts in Rappahannock and Fauquier counties, conducted under the auspices of the North American Butterfly Association, have recorded fewer than 10 monarchs each year. The average for Rappahannock since our local butterfly count was started by Old Rag Master Naturalists in 2011 is four and has fluctuated each year, but there’s not yet sufficient data to accurately determine any trends here.

The reasons for the monarch’s decline are complex, but the release cites as major factors loss of habitat due to agricultural practices, development and cropland conversion and degradation of wintering habitat in Mexico and California. Many sources also consider unstable weather caused by global warming to be a significant factor.

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants, such as this native Asclepias tuberosa (“butterfly weed”), at Bruce and Susan Jones’ naturalized property near the town of Washington.
Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants, such as this native Asclepias tuberosa (“butterfly weed”), at Bruce and Susan Jones’ naturalized property near the town of Washington.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

The memorandum of understanding between NWF and the Service “will serve as a catalyst for national collaboration on monarch conservation, particularly in planting native milkweed and nectar plants,” according to the press release.

Plants in the milkweed family are the only host for the monarch’s larvae, and nectar plants provide food for the adults during migration. As opposed to the historically more forested East, the Midwest and West have large open grasslands in which these sun-loving plants thrive. Not surprisingly, the numerous projects that will be funded by the new monarch initiative — aimed at restoring and enhancing more than 200,000 acres of monarch habitat while also supporting more than 750 schoolyard habitats and pollinator gardens — are mainly in these regions.

However, according to the Service’s web page for the monarch initiative (fws.gov/savethemonarch), one habitat project, “Monarch Habitat Creation through States,” is targeted at the Northeast region, which includes Virginia. The $100,000 dedicated for the project provides funds to state fish and wildlife agencies in the region for planting milkweed on habitat managed for game species, such as state parks and wildlife management areas.

This government effort to plant milkweed may spur on growing interest among conservation-minded private landowners to do the same on their property. Last year, several of my conservation email lists had threads about where to get milkweed seed. So important is milkweed to the monarch’s survival that it is one of the common names for the butterfly’s genus. However, growing milkweed is not as simple as it sounds, according to a report by the Xerces Society (see sidebar), a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat:

Monarch numbers up in winter grounds

As the Xerces Society reported in January, good weather has helped monarch populations tick up a bit, but pesticides, in particular, still threaten their survival.

This winter, according to Xerces, 56.5 million monarchs were counted in their winter grounds in Mexico. While up from 34 million in the previous year (the winter of 2013-14), that count had recorded the lowest number since the surveys began in 1993. While this winter’s increase seems remarkable, it still is the second-lowest population since the surveys began, says Xerces, and represents a population decline of 82 percent from the 20-year average and a decline of 95 percent from the population highs in the mid-1990s.

Since butterfly populations fluctuate with the weather, Xerces notes, an increase in this winter’s count was expected in the monarch’s U.S. and Canadian breeding areas after a spring and summer of favorable weather. Populations of monarchs wintering along the California coast also held steady in the recent count, at around 235,000, after a decline of around 50 percent from the 18-year average.

Xerces, one of several conservation organizations pushing for the monarch to be listed as endangered, points out that “monarchs need a very large population size to be resilient to threats from severe weather events, pesticides, climate change, disease and predation.” The organization points to the death of 500 million monarchs, more than eight times the size of the current population even with this year’s boost, from a single winter storm in 2002, and concludes that the butterfly’s future is “still very tenuous.”

“There has been a widespread effort to encourage people to plant milkweed to help the monarchs, but planting the wrong species of milkweed or planting pesticide-treated milkweed can actually harm the butterflies. The planting of tropical milkweed that doesn’t die back in the winter increases the risk of disease-related death for monarchs and interferes with migration. . . . Most insecticide-treated plants are unlabelled, so consumers must ask retailers about the stock to make sure they aren’t planting flowers that could be lethal to pollinators.”

Another project under the new initiative, “21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC) for Monarchs,” is funded at $200,000 and includes our region as well three others to the west. This project will help a youth and veteran’s corps develop outreach and environmental education materials, create schoolyard and community habitats, train volunteers in seed collection and planting, and perform other outreach-related activities in “strategic” urban areas, according to the initiative’s web page.

“We can save the monarch butterfly in North America, but only if we act quickly and together,” the Service’s director, Dan Ashe, is quoted as saying about the new initiative. “Together we can create oases for monarchs in communities across the country.”

Will the new cooperative initiative really be enough to turn around the recent precipitous decline of the monarch? This winter’s count of monarch’s winter grounds showed an increase, according to the Xerces report. But, as the organization warns, monarch populations tend to fluctuate pretty dramatically with the weather, so it looks like the butterfly still has a long way to go.

Several large conservation organizations have petitioned the USFWS to add the monarch to the list of endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The Service has said it will issue a finding on the petition in December 2015.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

  1. Monarch butterflies are not disappearing. Just like honeybees are not. The truth is monarch butterflies can be filmed by the hundreds in exactly the types of habitats where articles like this one say the butterflies have vanished. Places like southwestern Minnesota that are in the heart of Monsanto GMO farmland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32usE8vikxA GMO crop farmers in the Midwest are themselves posting photos of large gathering of monarchs on their farm property like this one did on Sept. 4, 2014: https://www.learner.org/cgi-bin/jnorth/jn-query-byday?1409942868

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