Plant Milkweed: Monarch Butterfly Populations on the Brink
If you’ve never seen the Alec Baldwin-narrated “Great Migrations” from the National Geographic Channel, I encourage you to check it out. Like other nature docs, it’s a visually stunning piece of work – and relative to this article, its feature on the Monarch Butterfly migration is something of a wonder (see below).
Unfortunately, Monarch populations are on the decline – with a report released Wednesday by the Mexican government and conservation officials reporting the number of butterflies overwintering in protected forests as low as 2.94 acres – numbers not seen for more than two decades. At one point, monarchs covered more than 50 acres.
The decrease follows a steady trend that Omar Vidal, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico operations tells the NY Times “more or less started in the last seven to eight years.”
To be sure, North America’s record-breaking 2012 heat did the migrating masses of Monarchs no favors – causing them to arrive early in regions, move further north than normal, and experience disrupted breeding cycles, lower eggs counts, and less nectar from the milkweed they feed on.
This last part is particularly vital because, regardless of weather, it’s U.S. farmers who are the biggest threat to the Monarch’s food source. From the article:
The American Midwest’s corn belt is a critical feeding ground for monarchs, which once found a ready source of milkweed growing between the rows of millions of acres of soybean and corn. But the ubiquitous use of herbicide-tolerant crops has enabled farmers to wipe out the milkweed, and with it much of the butterflies’ food supply.
“That habitat is virtually gone. We’ve lost well over 120 million acres, and probably closer to 150 million acres,” said Chip Taylor, director of the conservation group Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.
Taylor says that the U.S. needs to do more to protect areas rich in milkweed and restore grasslands and other conservation areas under threat from increased farming.
Craig Wilson, a senior research associate at Texas A&M University, tells USA Today that anyone can help simply by planting more milkweed.
“It is important to have a national priority of planting milkweed to assure there will be monarchs in the future,” Wilson believes. “If we could get several states to collaborate, we might be able to provide a ‘feeding’ corridor right up to Canada for the monarchs.”
Need some seeds? MonarchWatch.org has a great list of suppliers here. Check out the “Great Migrations” focus on Monarchs below.