White House Pressed to Protect Ailing Monarch Butterflies

By: Andrew C. Revkin


A monarch butterfly fed on silky red milkweed at one of the 7,450 Monarch Watch way stations spread along migratory routes. - Steve Smedley/The Pantagraph, via Associated Press
A monarch butterfly fed on silky red milkweed at one of the 7,450 Monarch Watch way stations spread along migratory routes. – Steve Smedley/The Pantagraph, via Associated Press


All too often, species that humans care about only get attention when they are in crisis. Such is the case with monarch butterflies. The insect, famed for its remarkable annual migrations, faced declines in habitat on both the Mexican and American ends of its range for decades, but now is the focus of an urgent push for a rescue. The latest step is a letter sent on Monday to President Obama and relevant cabinet members by a group of scientists, educators, farmers, and other concerned citizens organized by the Xerces Society and other conservation groups focused on these butterflies. The letter (read it here) describes policies the administration could pursue on both public and private land along the butterfly’s migratory path.  In February, after about 20 naturalists, poets and other monarch defenders pressed for international action in an open letter, the plight of the butterfly was addressed by President Obama and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts at a summit. The leaders agreed to create a working group to study ways to protect the butterfly at both ends of its range. A recent article by Richard Conniff in Yale Environment 360 describes what farmers can do to help monarchs. I also recommend a recent feature in The Times by Michael Wines describing efforts by various groups to restore habitat:

At the University of Minnesota, a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies called Monarch Joint Venture is funding research and conservation efforts. At the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch has enlisted supporters to create nearly 7,450 so-called way stations, milkweed-rich backyards and other feeding and breeding spots along migration routes on the East and West Coasts and the Midwest. But it remains an uphill struggle. The number of monarchs that completed the largest and most arduous migration this fall, from the northern United States and Canada to a mountainside forest in Mexico, dropped precipitously, apparently to the lowest level yet recorded. In 2010 at the University of Northern Iowa, a summertime count in some 100 acres of prairie grasses and flowers turned up 176 monarchs; this year, there were 11. [Read the rest.]

For what it’s worth, our yard in the Hudson Valley is rich in milkweed and butterfly weed; click here for a video closeup view of some of the other insect (and arachnid) life that this kind of habitat fosters.

Here’s the Xerces Society news release:

In a letter delivered to the White House on Monday, leading monarch scientists, farmers, and educators asked President Obama and the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to direct five federal agencies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Farm Service Agency and Bureau of Land Management, to establish a monarch butterfly recovery initiative to restore habitat for this species on both public and private lands. Monarch butterfly numbers have declined by 90% over the last two decades, and the loss of milkweed—the necessary host plant for monarch caterpillars—is one of the key factors responsible for the decline. This initiative will restore milkweed, monarch nectar plants and pesticide-free areas to the landscape. “To avoid further monarch declines,” noted Make Way for Monarchs cofounder, Gary Nabhan, “we need to support farmers and public land managers to plant milkweeds and other native wildflowers on 10 to 20 million acres over the coming years.” While monarch butterflies drink nectar for nourishment from thousands of different species of native and cultivated flowers, the foliage of milkweed is the only food source on which monarch caterpillars can feed. Without milkweed, there will be no monarchs. “Farmers and ranchers can be engaged and given financial incentives so that they can be part of the solution to bring back this iconic butterfly,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Pollinators like monarchs provide essential services that ensure food security and farmland health.” The habitat restoration efforts that benefit Monarch butterflies typically also benefit bees, game birds and other wildlife, according to Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. The letter was sent in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson’s death. This broad-based initiative will support and further the existing work of the Xerces Society, Monarch Joint Venture, Monarch Watch, Journey North, Monarch Teacher Network, Project Monarch Health, Pollinator Partnership and other organizations working to conserve the monarch and its incredible migration. “This is a win-win strategy to restore monarchs and other pollinators that benefit our food supply and the health of our landscapes. It can involve multiple stakeholders to forge positive solutions through the process of collaborative conservation,” Nabhan said.

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