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A monarch butterfly before migration to Mexico on Oct. 21, 2018 at the Mobile Botanical Gardens in Alabama. patricia pierce / CC BY 2.0

The yearly count of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico, released Wednesday, shows an increase of 144 percent from last year's count and is the highest count since 2006. That's good news for a species whose numbers had fallen in recent years, but conservationists say the monarch continues to need Endangered Species Act protection.

The count of 6.05 hectares of occupied forest is up from 2.48 hectares last winter. The increase is attributable to favorable weather during the spring and summer breeding seasons and during the fall migration. Monarchs have lost an estimated 165 million acres of breeding habitat in the U.S. to herbicide spraying and development.

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Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed. Jim Hudgins / USFWS

The population of monarch butterflies that spend winter along the California coast dropped 86 percent since 2017, according to a recent count by the Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation group.

Preliminary results from the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, an annual citizen science program, recorded less than 30,000 butterflies overwintering in California, a significant decline from the estimated 192,000 in 2017. The official numbers will be released later this month.

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The Migration and Importance of Monarchs

Monarch butterflies, which pollinate many different kinds of wildflowers, are among nature's great wonders. Their annual migration is one of the most awe-inspiring on Earth: Each fall, millions of these striking black-and-orange butterflies take flight on a 3,000-mile journey across the U.S. and Canada to wintering grounds in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains.

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Monarch butterfly on milkweed. randy matthews / Flickr

Monarch butterflies are already in danger. Their numbers have decreased by 80 percent in the past 20 years, and this year's count of the number of the black-and-orange butterflies wintering in Mexico was lower than 2017's.

Now, researched reported Tuesday in a Louisiana State University (LSU) press release reveals that two human-caused environmental concerns could combine to pose another deadly threat to monarchs in the future: climate change, and the spread of non-native species.

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Mark Heatherington / Flickr

The yearly count of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico, released Monday, shows a decrease from last year's count and confirms the iconic orange and black butterfly is still very much at risk. The count of 2.48 hectares of occupied winter habitat is down from 2.91 hectares last winter.

Overall, monarchs have declined by more than 80 percent over the past two decades.

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Murdo Morrison / Flickr

The monarch butterfly has a new chance at recovery, thanks to an innovative program seeking to crowdsource funding and habitat for the beloved species at an unprecedented scale and pace.

"The Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange is a market-based solution for restoring and conserving high-quality monarch habitat on America's private working lands," said David Wolfe, director of conservation strategy and habitat markets at Environmental Defense Fund. "We like to call it an 'Airbnb for butterflies' because it's the only program of its kind that can open the vast untapped potential of large-scale farms and ranches to make habitat available for monarchs, fast."

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Dicamba—a drift-prone herbicide linked to millions of acres of off-target crop damage across in 17 states—destroys mostly everything in its path except the crops that are genetically engineered to resist it. It's so damaging that several states, including Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri have introduced temporary bans on the weedkiller.

There's now another reason to worry about the controversial chemical. It's particularly harmful to milkweed, the only host plant for the iconic and already at-risk monarch buttery.

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By Alicia Graef

While international efforts are underway to help keep dwindling populations of monarch butterflies from disappearing, scientists are raising concerns about how severe weather and a loss of forest habitat at their wintering grounds in Mexico are affecting them.

Every year, monarchs embark on an epic multigenerational migration that takes them thousands of miles from Canada and the U.S. in search of sites in California and Mexico. The fir trees in the southern regions offer the shelter and warmth they need to survive the winter.

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Unfortunately, these vital forests in Mexico have been threatened by illegal logging and now storms have destroyed hundreds of acres of habitat, while severe weather is believed to have killed an estimated 6.2 million of these iconic butterflies.

"Since the forests provide the microclimate needed for butterflies to survive the winter, illegal logging must be eradicated and degraded areas need to be restored," Omar Vidal, CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mexico, said. "This would help the monarch butterfly to better adapt to extreme climate events and also provide local communities with sustainable economic alternatives."

According to WWF, while illegal logging is believed to have declined significantly over the past year, habitat degradation is still a problem and now climate change is posing another problem.

These fragile butterflies already face high mortality rates along their route from other threats that range from predators and parasites to a loss of habitat along their migration path. They travel north in the spring in search of milkweed plants—the only plant that monarchs lay eggs on and caterpillars eat. But these plants are being destroyed by the herbicide glyphosate, which is sprayed on fields where genetically modified Roundup-ready corn and soy crops are grown.

According to the Xerces Society, in the 1990s, an estimated one billion monarchs made this migration, but over the past 15 years, they've lost millions of acres of habitat and the number of monarchs has steadily dropped by 80 percent or more by some estimates.

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The good news is that these butterflies are not without advocates working to help them recover. Individuals are working in their gardens and communities to improve butterfly habitat. Conservation organizations are working on other measures, including seeking endangered species status for monarchs and working on habitat restoration.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation recently announced more than $3 million in grants from its Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund, which were matched for a total of $9 million, will be used to restore approximately 16,000 acres of key habitat to support monarchs' survival.

For more information about ways to get involved in efforts to save monarchs that include creating habitat or participating in citizen science projects, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Save the Monarch and the Monarch Joint Venture.

If you're looking for milkweed plants, check out the Xerces Society's Milkweed Seed Finder and Monarch Watch's Milkweed Market, which both offer native seeds and seed guides by region for planting.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Care2.

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