David Suzuki: How You Can Help Bring Monarch Butterflies Back from the Brink
Jode Roberts has spent a lot of the summer checking out ditches and fields along the sides of roads, railways and trails. At first, he didn’t like what he was seeing. Roberts, who is leading the David Suzuki Foundation’s effort to bring monarchs back from the brink, was searching for signs that the butterflies had visited patches of milkweed plants. Despite the bleak start, he recently hit the jackpot: a half-dozen eggs and a couple of monarch caterpillars, calmly munching on milkweed leaves.
A photo posted by Jode Roberts (@joderoberts) on
Over the past millennium, eastern monarch butterflies have migrated northward from Mexico in spring, arriving in southern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes in early summer, where they lay eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. In the following weeks, their caterpillars hatch and eat a steady milkweed diet. In late summer, they form chrysalises and undergo the amazing transformation into butterflies. They then begin fattening themselves for the arduous return to the Mexican alpine forests where they overwinter.
Concerned citizens, scientists and conservation groups were starting to think monarchs might largely be a no-show in Canada this summer. The eastern monarch population has plummeted from more than a billion butterflies in the 1990s to an estimated 35 million in 2014—a drop of more than 95 percent. They bounced back to about 55 million in Mexico this past winter, but a cool start to their journey northward coupled with the virtual eradication of milkweed plants—mainly thorough widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) over the past two decades—left monarch experts wondering whether the butterflies would make it across the border this year.
The good news is that citizen scientists and backyard butterfly lovers from across the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada have reported through social media that monarch butterflies are arriving and laying a remarkable number of eggs. But it’s too early to gauge whether the numbers will meet already low expectations.
While monarch enthusiasts are breathing a momentary sigh of relief, Roberts and colleagues have launched the Monarch Manifesto, encouraging people throughout the monarchs’ path to pledge to do their part to ensure the butterflies continue to recover.
Participants are asked to commit to do three simple things this summer: grow milkweed, report monarch sightings and avoid using pesticides on their properties. They also commit to two simple tasks for the fall: reach out to at least one neighborhood school, faith group, business or other institution about planting a butterfly garden and call local garden centers or nurseries to ask them to order native milkweed plants for next spring. Manifesto signatories will receive information and tips on how to begin these conversations.
Awesome! :) http://t.co/S5djTbdHpD
— David Suzuki FDN (@DavidSuzukiFDN) August 15, 2015
The Monarch Manifesto is part of a growing movement to bring back monarch butterflies and help other important pollinators, like honeybees and wild bees. If all goes well, we’ll see thousands of participants, hundreds of new butterfly gardens and more local milkweed sources next spring.
The backyard and urban-focused campaign is bolstered by research by University of Delaware entomologist Douglas Tallamy, who found monarchs lay more eggs on garden plants than on milkweed in meadows. The campaign also complements a research project the David Suzuki Foundation will launch this fall, in partnership with University of Guelph researchers Tyler Flockhart and Ryan Norris, examining best practices for cultivating milkweed and encouraging monarch populations along rail and hydro lines, roadways and trails.
What can you do to help? An easy first step is to sign the Monarch Manifesto, which includes information on how to attract butterflies to your neighborhood. If you already have milkweed in your garden or on your balcony, consider collecting seeds this fall and sharing them with friends and neighbors. If you don’t have a garden or balcony, you can look for places where you live, work and play that could become new butterfly garden patches.
While Roberts continues his hopeful hunt for signs of monarchs this summer, I hope you’ll join thousands of people who are taking action, adding pollinator-friendly plants to their yards, spurring butterfly gardens in their neighborhoods and transforming a multitude of spaces into safe havens for bees and butterflies. Together, we can bring monarch butterflies back from the brink.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Homegrown National Park Project Manager Jode Roberts.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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