Migratory Monarch Decline Highlights Larger Problem of Pollination 

click to enlarge Monarch are an ambassador for all insects, showing the need to improve and restore pollinator habitat. - U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Monarch are an ambassador for all insects, showing the need to improve and restore pollinator habitat.

Just two years ago, the number of monarch butterflies reaching the southern-most migratory destination in Mexico was the lowest since scientists began measuring the population 22 years ago.

A combination of deforestation in Michoacán, Mexico; the use of genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops, which resulted in the loss of the monarch's host plant, milkweed; Manifest Destiny-like land development; and severe weather are all suspected as culprits in the dramatic loss of insect pollinators.

After the disastrous 2013 findings, the monarch's plight went mainstream — stirring interest in conservation and bringing attention to population declines in other pollinators, like bees.

Monika Maeckle, author of the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog, said a year later a coalition joined together to lobby the U.S. Department of Interior to list the monarch as an endangered species.

"The petition proposing listing the monarch as an endangered species and threatened species caused debate and public awareness ... about what we can do about this," she said. "It sparked positive developments."

Maeckle credits the interest in monarchs — and the population decline — in bringing the butterfly's struggle to the forefront of the 20th annual Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Conservation and Management in April between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

"It's not just about monarchs," said Maeckle. "Monarchs are ambassadors because they are beautiful and ubiquitous. There's also a honey bee crisis and the general decline of our ecosystem. They may be small, but are very important pieces in the food web, which is suffering."

click to enlarge U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

That commonality, coupled with stunning orange-and-black wings, is something everyone can identify with.

Even President Barack Obama weighed in via a presidential memorandum highlighting the monarchs. He called the decline in all pollinators a serious problem that requires immediate attention because of the potential impact on the sustainability of the country's food production systems, potential negative economic impacts on agriculture and for the overall health of the environment.

"Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets," Obama wrote. "Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment."

The president's memorandum created the Pollinator Health Task Force, which, in a 64-page document, outlines strategies and goals for increasing pollinator populations. That effort explores ways to improve the 1,500-mile Interstate 35 as a pollinator corridor, particularly as a way to bolster habitat for migrating monarchs.

However, just because federal, state and local governments are creating plans of action to stem the decline, anyone with a yard or a patio for plants can make a difference.

"Plant some kind of native plant that flowers in your yard, if you have one. Support organizations that do research and pay attention to pollinators. Let politicians know and encourage them to take steps in policy," Maeckle said.

While the urgency is real, there seems to be good news for monarchs this year. Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, a nonprofit program based at the University of Kansas, said fall migration in 2015 may be the best in four years.

"The number of eggs found and the distribution of these finds now leads me to suspect that the migration through the upper Midwest will be better than any migration seen since 2011," he wrote in an online population status update.

Maeckle said recent spring rains in Texas are keeping flowers lush, which is the last leg of the trip into Mexico.

"Texas is so important," she said. "We have nectar. They come down and fuel up on the way."

Early migratory monarch butterflies should already be arriving in Bexar County or traveling through, and the peak migration will land between October 10 and 27. So if you've got a yard, purchase some of those flowering native plants to welcome the monarchs on their journey south.


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