Migratoy Monarchs

A female migratory monarch butterfly feeds on nectar in the Paul Smith’s College VIC Butterfly House on Thursday.

PAUL SMITHS — The flap of migratory monarch butterfly wings abounded at the Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center on Thursday — music to the ears after last week’s announcement that the butterflies are now classified as an endangered species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, recently added migratory monarch butterflies to its list of endangered species. Martha Van der Voort, the program coordinator at the VIC, said that while the butterfly decline is severe, there’s a glimmer of hope to be found in the new endangered classification. Van der Voort said it could help spread awareness that the migratory monarchs are in danger and could encourage people to help boost monarch populations.

The Butterfly House at the VIC — where around 200 migratory monarchs are protected and tagged each year before their migration south — is one example of local efforts to boost monarch populations, and butterfly house volunteer Cindy Watson said people are already stopping in to ask how they can help, too.

Severe threats

Migratory monarchs are a specific species of monarchs that migrate from central Mexico to northern North America before returning back to Mexico — a 6,000-mile roundtrip adventure that takes four generations of the butterflies to complete. But in recent years, the butterflies have faced threats from deforestation and the use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides in what Van der Voort calls “big agriculture.”

Massive farms that clear large swaths of land for monocropping and use pesticides to maintain their crops — especially farms in the Midwest where there’s a large migratory pathway for monarchs — have been systematically threatening the monarch population by wiping out milkweed, the one and only plant that the migratory monarchs use to lay their eggs. Climate change has also increased the threat to monarch butterflies, according to the IUCN. Droughts can limit milkweed growth and encourage wildfires, and severe heat can kill the monarchs or trigger migration patterns before milkweed is available for them.

The eastern population of migratory monarch butterflies has fallen by 84% from 1996 to 2014, according to the IUCN, and the western population — which is even more endangered — has declined by an estimated 99.9% from the 1980s to 2021.

“Concern remains as to whether enough butterflies survive to maintain the populations and prevent extinction,” the IUCN wrote in a press release.

Pollinators such as migratory monarchs and native bee populations are essential to life on this planet — they pollinate most of the crops grown for consumption. Without pollination, those crops would never produce food. More than 150 food crops in the U.S. depend on pollinators, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including almost all fruit and grain crops. The U.S. hasn’t classified migratory monarch butterflies as endangered, and Van der Voort believes that’s largely a political choice — the classification would require that new federal regulations be enacted to protect them — but she said the international classification is one step in the right direction.

“What can we do?”

Watson said people who’ve stopped in the VIC’s Butterfly House recently and learned about the threats facing monarch populations have been asking her, “what can we do?” Her answer: Plant milkweed, don’t use pesticides and start a native flower garden.

Native plants like goldenrod, wild bergamot, mountain mint and wood asters, in addition to monarchs’ host plant of milkweed, are crucial food sources for the migrating monarch butterflies, which need plenty of sustenance before they take off for Mexico in the fall. Van der Voort said goldenrod is an especially “critical” source of nectar that the butterflies need to fly south. Even if a small patch of the plants is all a person has room for in their yard or outside their apartment, Van der Voort said the butterflies are sure to find it.

“Anybody who’s planting any amount of native vegetation that butterflies can either nectar on — just eat — or host on … is helping,” she said. “There’s no question about that.”

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