A Vanishing North American Icon and How You Can Help

Monarch Butterfly Metamorphosis

It’s Earth Day.

This is the one day out of the entire year dedicated to a shout-out for our shared, beautiful, 8000 mile-in-diameter, magnetic, terrestrial, tectonic-plated, oceanic, mountainous, oblate spheroid (which is almost round but not quite) planet that we call home. In fact, humans are only one of millions of species that call earth home.   

One of those millions of species whose existence has been sustained on earth for millions of years, a beloved treasure of North America, is in danger of disappearing forever. The monarch butterfly, a brilliant orange, black, and white spotted winged icon whose delicate beauty, magnificent metamorphosis and miraculous migration takes up permanent real estate in the part of our brains that holds beloved childhood memories, is vanishing before our eyes. The likelihood of our children’s children never having the good fortune of a cherished monarch memory is becoming a tragic reality. Once numbered in the millions, the western monarch population, residing anywhere west of the Rockies migrating from as far north as Canada to overwintering spots along the California coast, is now dangerously hovering around 28,000 according to the Xerces Society’s 2018 count.

You read that correctly. Twenty-eight thousand monarchs. The western monarch, which only decades ago in the 80’s was fluttering around 4.5 million is now at impending risk of total collapse. This new number, 28,000, represents .5% of the historical population or rather a 99.4% decline and a dramatic 86% decline even from the 2017 count of 148,000 monarchs.

Word on the street is that the eastern monarch is doing better this year due to favorable weather.  Experts advise a muffled enthusiasm due to the fact that habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide (including herbicides) use remain a legitimate threat and the overall trajectory of North American populations is in steep decline.

In case you’re wondering, the eastern and western monarchs are the same butterfly that have two different migration patterns. Scientists are working diligently to better understand these migration patterns and whether or not there is overlap between the two.

For many of us monarch enthusiasts in Southern Oregon, a common theme prevailed in 2018 despite our best pollinator gardening intentions:

Where have all the monarchs gone?

It was clearly evident early summer when we simply didn’t see many monarchs come through our properties. We were hoping they were making a late and grand entrance. Summer passed. Then fall. I can count on two hands the number of caterpillars and butterflies I saw compared to dozens more the previous year.  This was the tragic story told by many. 

Late 2018 and early 2019, I was fortunate enough to visit overwintering sites along California’s Central Coast. There, I witnessed first-hand the conspicuous lack of orange flashes and clusters. I spoke with docents who shared the same stories, we just don’t have the numbers this year. At Pismo Beach I was told the 2018-2019 count was around 3,000. Pismo Beach may be the most highly sought after overwintering site for the monarchs. In 2016-2017 the count was 28,000, already a low number for this popular spot. That number now represents the entire western population not just the clusters at one overwintering site.

There’s no real mystery about the disappearance of these monarchs. Humans have contributed to their decline for decades. According to the Center for Biological Diversity

The monarch butterfly has been decreasing towards extinction due to landscape-scale threats from pesticides, development, and global climate change. Although illegal logging and severe weather have contributed to the decline, the large-scale use of herbicides that destroy milkweed—the monarch caterpillar’s sole host plant and only food source during its caterpillar stage—is a driver of the butterfly’s decline.

Roughly 165 million total acres of milkweed have been lost to pesticide-intensive agriculture and development. 

A Simple Call to Action to Help the Monarchs

Here’s the good news. You have the power to help and turn this situation around. You’ll find most of these bullet points described in greater detail with more resources on a post I wrote 2017. 

1. Plant native milkweed

Monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed. No milkweed, no monarchs.  It’s an obligate host plant– the only food the caterpillars will eat. A monarch mama-to-be will die looking for milkweed. If she finds it, she may lay roughly 300 eggs. If she doesn’t, the earth loses 300 monarch baby caterpillar opportunities.

While visiting the monarch overwintering sites I talked to a few different groups of people who did not know that monarchs can only survive if there’s milkweed. Every person I spoke with committed to planting milkweed. Will you commit to it?

Planting native milkweed will help ensure the species survives.  Go to your local nursery that does not treat plants with any toxic chemical inputs (yes, some nurseries spray plants with insecticides which totally defeats the purpose of planting pollinator flowers) and ask them for native (it’s important you plant milkweed that’s native to your area) milkweed or grow your own! Hint: Purchasing is easier.

Xerces Society suggests if you live in California, planting early emerging species such as heartleaf milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) or woollypod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa) may be especially important. They also suggest that folks who live within 5-10 miles of overwintering sites to avoid planting milkweed as it could keep the monarchs at the overwintering site longer than they should be there, thus interrupting migration. Instead, for those folks live along the coast, plant nectar plants for arriving monarchs in early to late fall and departing monarchs early to late spring. 

2. Discontinue using pesticides (herbicides and insecticides)

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops, Research is showing that homeowners now share culpability with agriculture for pollinator decline. Weed killers and insecticides are tainting pollen that bees bring back to their hives and nests. A growing body of research suggests that, even at non-lethal doses, pesticides can disrupt bee navigation thus losing their way. Broods perish when the females don’t return to the nest. Pesticides make all pollinators vulnerable to stress and disease, prematurely killing them.

3. Plant Pollinator Habitat

Dr. Landis of Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates (SOMA) believes that “Paying more attention to the condition of our imperiled planet and creating pollinator habitat are things that everyone can do” Planting nectar sources for monarchs will, incidentally, help most pollinators especially if the sources are native to your area. One of my favorite resources for native wildflowers is Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Go here for an advanced search on plants for butterflies and narrow your search (right side of page) to your specific area. I suggest you focus on perennials with a sustained bloom time that lasts from early spring to late fall.   

4. Controlled Rearing 

For those who have higher ambitions, you can contribute by responsibly rearing aka controlled rearing monarch caterpillars.

Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates (SOMA) soon to be Western Monarch Advocates co-founders Robert Coffan and Dr. Tom Landis have been working tirelessly to help the western monarchs survive and hopefully one day, thrive again. They spend their days restoring habitat, planting and maintaining monarch waystations, and educating the public through workshops, fairs and conferences. They’ve also written a guide to responsible rearing. I’m unable to embed the guide in this post. If it becomes available online, I’ll include a link, otherwise, please write in the comments section if you’d like a PDF, and I’ll get it to you. Also feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. Controlled rearing or raising monarchs, for me, has created some of the most breathtaking moments in my life.

Above, I emphasized the word “responsibly” because irresponsible rearing can contribute to issues like diseases. Rearing is not breeding. Never ever…ever…ever breed or buy butterflies. For any reason. Ever. Breeders are contributing to countless wildlife problems. Too many to mention in this post. 

But rearing or raising is different. It’s taking a caterpillar or egg from the wild and bringing it to a safe place to carry out its lifecycle. Mr. Coffan of SOMA explains,

 The beautiful and iconic monarch butterfly is known and admired throughout the world.  Many people are rallying and helping [the declining monarch population] by providing a safe place for wild monarchs to grow and be re-released into the wild.  It is a joy for people of all ages to watch this miraculous progress!  

But with it, comes a responsibility…

Your goal for controlled rearing must be: to assist a monarch from the wild, provide it with a temporary place of peace, free of predation and disease for a few days or weeks, and re-release it back into the wild where you found it.


5. Eat organic food

The connection may not be immediately clear, but if you eat food that has been sprayed with poisons, then you’re not only introducing toxins to your own body but also to millions of little, winged bodies that have the grave misfortunate of being caught in the direct spray, or drift, or who happen to nectar on a plant that’s been sprayed. Yes, intensive farming practices like genetically modified crops, are major contributors to the destruction of pollinator habitat; but any farmer who sprays is contributing to the decline of monarchs, of all pollinators. 

Stay in the know

Attend a Webinar from the Monarch Joint Venture Series

Crowdsource Sightings
Join journey north and be a part of the solution mapping monarchs. Here’s the link to sign up and report sightings
Here’s the map where you can see the activity. 

Check out Xerces Society’s Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper

Attend the Western Monarch Summit
January 10-12 2020 will be the first Western Monarch Summit in Pacific Grove, California. It’s open to the public yet is geared toward experts, advocates, and agencies who are collaborating on western monarch conservation, restoration, and advocacy. Learn more here

Check out Xerces Society’s call to actionfull of valuable information and resources.

Dr. Landis shared the image below of a painting by Lucy Egertson, a 6th grader from Bend, Oregon. She and her family raise monarch butterflies as part of their conservation efforts.  About the painting, Dr. Landis said, “I think it speaks to the fact that people are connecting with monarchs in an emotional way and want to do something to help.” He uses this image in his presentations and asks: Are We Watching the End of the Monarch Butterfly?

Monarch Tears by Lucy Egertson

When I really think about it –the monarch’s transformation– I’m inspired by nature’s ability to thrive despite unconscionable odds. The monarch is not only fighting for survival from the natural world but is also bumping up against human interference through habitat destruction. Already less than 5% survive to adulthood due to countless predators that devour or parasitize the eggs and caterpillars. Fortunately, there is a burgeoning grassroots movement of citizen scientists planting monarch waystations (gardens with milkweed and forage flowers) and rearing monarchs indoors. I believe this movement will help save the monarch. 

Check out the video compilation I made of the monarch’s metamorphosis from the various babies I raised at home. I hope, if even in some small way, it will inspire you to take some action on behalf of this miraculous being whose existence has grown increasingly dependent on humans.

The monarch migration from Mexico and the Central Coast of California has already begun.

Maybe this year you will celebrate Earth Day by planting some milkweed?

Many thanks to Robert Coffan and Tom Landis for all you do to help make earth,
our shared home, a better place.

“When the milkweed is gone, the monarchs are gone.  It’s that simple.”
~ Robert Coffan, SOMA founder

“Thank you for whatever you are doing, in your own way, on your own terms, and in your own busy lives, to help this winged species (and others) with no voice.”
~Robert Coffan, SOMA founder

“I feel optimistic about what we are doing because humans caused this problem which means humans can correct it.  One benefit of this crisis is that it gets the attention of many people who wouldn’t otherwise be aware.  The underlying lesson is that humans have been having a deleterious effect on the environment for many years, and the decline of western monarchs is just one of the more obvious effects.”
~Dr. Tom Landis, SOMA founder


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