What College Students Can Do: Learning From Success Stories on Changing Practices and Policies

Recovering the Broader Monarchs and Milkweed Community


Renowned NASA climate scientist Dr. Jim Hansen often opens his public lectures with a discussion of the monarch butterfly migration. He has helped his grandchildren raise milkweed on their farm and for years they have followed the life cycle of monarchs through to fall migration. The Hansen youth have also been involved as “citizen scientists” participating in tagging the migrating monarchs.

It gives us pause to think how families such as the Hansens must have felt during the past few years when they saw no monarchs. Their  “Granddad” must be able to recite to them a long list of agricultural and societal reasons why monarchs have declined– and why it may get worse – if we don’t act immediately to create and restore habitat. It is simply not acceptable that we allow this migration to slip through our fingers from lack of action. Showing photo postcards of the Mexican butterfly trees to grandchildren (instead of the real thing) is NOT an option we should be willing to accept. We need college students to remind older generations that they will not accept the further loss of biodiversity and the destruction of habitats, for it would be, as biologist E.O. Wilson has said, “the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”

Let’s fast-forward this issue: When David Sherwood of PRI’s The World spoke to Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor in September 2013, the insect ecology professor at the University of Kansas reminded Sherwood of just how close we are to allowing such a folly:

“All in all, the last two breeding seasons have been just a disaster for monarchs and this is going to be the lowest overwintering population ever. In the past, a bout of bad weather wasn’t enough to send populations spiraling, but that combines with a decline in the habitat that supports monarch butterflies,” he said.

And that brings us back to the relationships that milkweeds have, not only with monarchs, but with a fleet of some 130 other insects as well.

Not long ago, Taylor explained, the vast corn and soybean fields of the Midwest supported enough milkweed to ensure plenty of monarch habitat. The turning point, Taylor surmises, was the year 2000, when farmers began using genetically-modified crops that are paired for use with glyphosate herbicides.,

“After 2000, when we saw the adoption of Roundup-ready corn and soybeans began to skyrocket, then we began to see the monarchs decline and they declined with the disappearance of milkweed,” Taylor told Sherwood.

To be clear, as Sherwood deduced, the problem isn’t the GMO crops themselves. Taylor confirmed that it’s the herbicide that goes with them, which is broadly and unselectively doing what it was designed to do in a targeted way— to kill weeds, including the indiscriminate kill of milkweed. At the same time, it has “evolutionarily selected” for greater virulence of over a dozen superweeds that are now tolerant of glyphosates. These superweeds are now increasing in abundance and are harder to remove from fields where they are competing with crop growth..

While a few scientists, largely from the agrichemical industry, have critiqued the research linking glyphosates to a decline in monarchs, the same doubt and debate occurred fifty years ago in Rachel Carson’s attempts to link overuse of DDT to pollinator and songbird declines. Time will tell if this is a repeat, but Chip Taylor, Karen Oberhauser and others say the result of the huge increase in glyphosate use is highly correlated with monarch declines and on-ground observations suggest it has been devastating for monarchs. The bad weather of the last two years seemed to have been the last straw for many more.


What You Can Do:


  • Get educated and situated: Join together with friends in your neighborhood and learn about the diverse and wonderfully complex interactions in the milkweed-monarch community. For starters, read the Milkweed, Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community in the Milkweed Patch. Or get on line with Journey North to track the migration of monarchs.



  • Get focused on effective action: We are into respectful engagement with farmers, highway maintenance crews, government officials, policy-makers and agrichemical suppliers. We wish to foster social engagement in these issues and ethical responsibility among all stakeholders, so we will leave conscientious objection or civil disobedience to others if they choose. We do not condone confrontational tactics.


  • Get connected to the work on and in the ground: In early spring, work to propagate an increased diversity of native milkweed seeds through your greenhorns or young farmers coalition group, campus community garden or farm, state native plant society, local garden clubs or botanical gardens. In late spring, track monarch’s northward or eastward migrations through the Journey North website or transplant out their established seedlings in “plugs” to better-watered patches in community gardens, pollinator gardens or campus farms. In summer, join forces with other citizen scientists through the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (www.mlmp.org).  In fall, help tag migrating monarchs with Monarch Watch, and track the southward or westward migrations through the Journey South website, and collect seeds of milkweeds for next year’s plantings.


  • Get involved as a local citizen: Plant monarch gardens as educational tools. Show up for department of transportation hearings. Work with highway maintenance crews through their supervisors to eliminate or reduce the impact of mowing or spraying in both natural and transplanted milkweed and other wildflower populations. Work collaboratively with them to implement ways of reducing the mowed area along highways to the first eight feet off highway pavement, and no lower than a foot from the ground.


  • Get involved as a citizen of your state: Please write us if you wish to receive draft language for resolutions or memorials to advance through your state legislature that encourage that risk assessments and recovery strategies for monarchs and other pollinators by state agencies, state universities and non-profit organizations.


  • Get involved as a participant in countrywide events. Join the tens of thousands of students who will participate in the M4M dance performance and video art on the Capitol Mall in June 2014 during National Pollinator Week. The project will gather “monarch moves” (short dance movements and phrases) from participating members of the community to include in a final piece of choreography. For an idea of what that might look like, you can view the project’s Kickstarter video here http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1427293109/moving-for-monarchs-the-dance-of-life. Also, check out our calendar for upcoming events near you.


  • Get involved as a national citizen and voter. Request your Representative in Congress and your Senator consider co-sponsoring a National Reducing Mowing policy as part of the next Transportation Reauthorization Bill that would reconcile the needs of birds, butterflies and bees in mowing protocols for all fifty states, with particular regard for monarch recovery. Also, follow the Center for Food Safety’s efforts to get monarchs protected through national herbicide regulation and integrated weed management at www.centerforfoodsafety.org.


  • Get involved as a global citizen. Distinguished monarch biologists and thought leaders from five nations have recently written U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto requesting transnational efforts to avert further declines in monarchs. Work with others in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to affirm poet and diplomat Homero Aridjis’s call to have monarchs the icon of our trilateral Agreements and conservation partnerships, as a symbol of a migrant dependent on healthy landscapes across North America.


Success Stories:
Can Youth Change the Course of History on Behalf of Monarchs?


Look at what a college-based group of citizen scientists have accomplished in just a few years in documenting and protecting monarch movements on the West Coast at the California Polytechnic State University, http://monarchalert.calpoly.edu/html/about.html Monarch Alert is a citizen based research project backed by graduate student researchers and faculty from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  They focus on the demography and population fluctuations of western monarch butterflies, through sampling of overwintering populations in San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties.

The program rests on a solid foundation of research set by Dennis Frey and the Ventana Wildlife Society. The Monarch Alert Program is now under the direction of Cal Poly Professor Francis Villablanca, Dr. Villablanca involves students in hands-on research with monarchs. They focus on using demography in management of biological resources so that management is data driven. Monarch Alert not only involves undergraduate and graduate students, but community stakeholders as well as, and therefore leads to effective conservation.

Have students been effective voices in other realms of environmental policy? Absolutely. Check out the website and social media campaigns primarily run by college students associated with 350.org.  Millions of youth have participated in their events regarding climate change. Their website has tens of thousands of photo-illustrated success stories from youth leaders in 188 countries who embraced the opportunity to do their part in effecting local and global change. These youth, who are from virtually all cultures and language groups around the world, are already creatively and effectively bearing witness to the devastating effect of climate change and asking for policy change.

While some may initially feel that they are not in a position to turn the tide on climate change or the loss of species like monarchs, they have become motivated to leverage change at many levels.  So it especially behooves American and Canadian students to adopt this easy-to-do thing and restore monarch habitat.  If we do this, then we can turn to do a harder thing – that of garnering support for a carbon tax that would fund a clean, green energy future and keep many other species from extinction during our own lifetimes.  Early this year, more than six thousand college students pledged to be voluntarily and non-violently arrested to raise the issues of the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel exploration on the earth’s many creatures. What can you do that is appropriate for your age, place and motivation on behalf of the endangered monarch migration?

What a success it would be to fully offer safe havens and non-toxic food and roosting sites for the important yet often-forgotten pollinators. What can you initiate to transform schoolyards, college campuses, lawn-meadows, cultivated acreages, hillside orchards, roadsides, railroad lines, and mountainsides so that they are once again of wonderful native species of flowers?

And, specifically, what can you do for milkweeds in habitat conservation or restoration at the landscape level? The 120 North American species of milkweeds have been described as being as complex as members of the orchid family. A person can have a heavenly experience of tasking in a double lung full of milkweed fragrance on a warm summer evening. Their natural history will blow your socks off. The cultural history of milkweeds is almost beyond belief – from the use of floss in wartime to the indigenous people’s medicinal, economic and spiritual connections to the milkweed family. Join this family and leave no orphan milkweeds nor monarchs behind…


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