Monarch Butterflies in Rapid Decline
by Darby on March 1, 2015 - 1:58pm
This past summer, while sitting in my garden, I couldn’t help but notice something quite peculiar. Where were the butterflies? I remember when I was a little girl there were plenty to be of fluttering friends to be admired. But here I was, and not a butterfly was to be seen, not even my favourite, the iconic monarch. I haven’t been the only one to notice. In fact, monarch populations have shown dramatic drops in the species population over the past few years. I decided to consult a variety of sources to see how this environmental issue was being dealt with worldwide. I will summarize articles, linked at the end of the article, from Global News Montreal in Quebec, from the Washington Post in the United States and, from Associated Press, an American association, posted in the Guardian in the United Kingdom regarding the declining monarch populations.
Monarchs migrate from Mexico to Canada, wintering in the south and spending summers in the north. Six generations of the butterfly are needed to make the journey. After they hatch, new monarchs born without knowledge of the migratory patterns, then somehow continue the voyage; a biological mystery. However, monarchs require a specific plant, milkweed, along their migration. It is their primary food source and the only plant that can host their young. However, the plant has become increasingly sparse. Monarch butterfly populations are declining at an alarming rate, not only here in Quebec, but throughout North America. Its yearly migration across North America may very well come to an end. In Mexico, populations reached an all-time low this year since the species was first studied in 1993.Monarchs used to be plentiful but a 90% decline in the species population has left only some 30 million monarchs across the continent. The butterflies now only occupy 1.65 acres near Mexico City which barely measures up to the 44.5 acres they covered in their peak.
In fact, very few monarchs were seen in Quebec in 2013. Maxim Larrivée, an entomologist at Montreal’s Insectarium, stated that “normally we have hundreds of millions of Monarchs in Quebec and Eastern Canada, and now we have 90 per cent [less] of that at least”. Larrivée is calling the rapid disappearance of monarchs a tragedy. The decline, according to him, can be blamed on the fact that monarchs are weaker and are having trouble finding milkweed.
The majority of the scientific community agrees that the decline of the populations is now a trend. Unfortunate events can no longer be blamed for the monarch’s decline; other, more important factors are at play. Although severe weather events contributed to the devastation of the species, the absence of milkweed coupled with habitat reduction is largely to blame. What’s more, milkweed is disappearing due to urbanization as well as increased herbicide use.
The World Wildlife Fund’s Environment Department in Mexico and the Natural Protected Areas Commission are worried about the illegal logging happening in the butterfly’s refuge near Mexico City as it has noticeably shrinking the butterfly’s winter home. Progress is being made in Mexico; logging in the protected reserve is lessened. However, according to Karen Oberhauser, a professor of the University of Minnesota, the majority of the blame falls on the herbicide-tolerant crops, crops used in the mid-west of the United States where most migratory butterflies come from. These crops have increased herbicide use in the United States. Since the appearance of genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops, farmers can spray herbicide without worry. Increased herbicide use has largely eliminated milkweed, the monarch’s primary food source and only reproductive site, on agricultural land. This is fundamentally responsible for the monarch’s decline as the monarch’s migration takes it right through these agricultural dead zones. Both farmers and consumers alike are responsible for the monarchs decline by using herbicides and by supporting the use of such herbicides through the consumption of herbicide-resistant crops.
Activists and gardeners alike have responded to the plight of the monarch by starting small milkweed planting movements. We can all help out our fluttering friends in distress by simply planting milkweed and flowering plants in our neighbourhoods. This provides monarchs with much needed laying grounds and food sources. The Montreal Insectarium is also calling on the public to aid in the monitoring of the monarch population by reporting sightings in order for scientists to be able to follow these dwindling populations of butterflies. This helps monitor the location and numbers of migrating butterflies. They are joining forces with other organisations in the United States in order to handle the situation of the monarchs.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also announced its plan to help the species. In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, efforts will be made to increase the presence of milkweed along the butterfly’s migration routes. These organisations will “help raise awareness about the need for milkweed, provide seeds to anyone willing to plant it and to plant the seeds in open space”. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service will help create a milkweed corridor along Interstate 35 in the United States, land that sees 50% of the migrating population. They are also urging governments to further the effort by planting in public space and are reviewing the monarch butterfly for endangered species status.
Co-operation between organizations and governments across the countries will serve to better help the monarch’s plight. The governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States are collaborating to help bring back the monarch, having signed “environmental accords to protect migratory species such as the Monarch”.
The situation of the monarch is a glimpse into a larger problem. Other species of butterflies are also endangered and a few have reached extinction including the Xerces blue, rockland skipper, and Zestos. Butterflies are known to be a rapidly adaptable species. However, their populations are deteriorating due to environmental changes. Entomologists are concerned that such an adaptable species is experiencing significant difficulty at adjusting to climate change. They are fearful of the looming fate of many other less adaptable organisms.
Interestingly enough, the issue is presented very consistently across the different locations. All of the articles reported that the disappearance of milkweed was the main cause of the decline of the monarch population. I found this interesting because often there is controversy when it comes to the cause of problems and how to fix them. However, all three articles suggested that planting milkweed would be the way to go. I did notice that the Canadian article suggested ways in which individuals at home could help whereas the American article reported more on the initiatives of organisations.
Overall, I am very concerned about this issue. Not only is it worrisome to me because monarchs are disappearing but also because it is indicative that climate change is having devastating effects on the animal populations that should be the most adaptable. For the butterflies themselves, we can all play part in improving the issue by planting milkweed in our own gardens. I would go as far as suggest that we should push our local municipalities to plant it in our public flower beds, flower pots and parks. I will be attempting to do just that in my own municipality this spring as well as planting milkweed alongside my own tulips this spring in the hopes of helping the plight of the monarchs.
Associated Press. "Monarch butterfly numbers drop to lowest level since records started." The Guardian (2014). Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/29/monarch-butterfly-num....
Fears, Darryl. "The monarch massacre: Nearly a billion butterflies have vanished." The Washington Post (2015). Web. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/02/09/the-....
Kelly, Amanda. "Quebec entomologists concerned about Monarch butterfly populations." Global News (2013). Web. <http://globalnews.ca/news/736411/quebec-entomologists-concerned-about-mo....