Can Parks Help Save the Monarch?

February 28, 2014, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh

There is much we can do to protect the beloved monarch butterfly as it struggles to survive.One of the most beloved invertebrate species of wildlife in North America, the monarch butterfly, could be gone in virtually the blink of an eye if effective conservation actions are not taken immediately. The situation for monarchs has suddenly become so dire that some scientists and conservation biologists fear for the very future of this valuable species throughout North America.

Monarch numbers are in significant decline due to habitat loss, the disappearance of critical food plants needed for survival, the negative effects of herbicide and insecticide use, extreme weather events and even illegal logging of roosting trees at overwintering sites in Mexico. The collective impact of these factors has reduced monarch populations almost 95 percent from historic high numbers in the hundreds of millions during the early 1990s. 

The annual seasonal migration of monarchs from breeding locations across much of the United States and Canada to wintering sites in Mexico, California, and possibly Florida and Central America has been a late-summer source of wonder for children and adults for generations. People in many areas of the continental United States were able to witness a wave of orange and black jewels fluttering through neighborhoods and farm fields each fall. Children and adults alike delighted in the flight of the monarchs as they migrated south, clustering for a few days in areas with nectar-bearing plants, then disappearing until the following spring  when they came back to lay eggs on milkweed plants for the next generation to make its way northward. 

Perhaps no other plant, animal or insect has done more to excite the imagination of children. Egg, larva, pupa, adult — metamorphosis! It’s one of the first mysteries of nature we learn as children. The transformation that monarchs go through from egg to adult inspires wonder in all who witness it. “Monarchs provide a connection to nature unlike almost any other species,” says Karen Oberhauser, professor of conservation biology and director of the Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota, and chair of the Monarch Joint Venture Steering Committee. Laurie Adams, executive director of the Pollinators Partnership, concurs. “A lot of people had a personal experience with this butterfly in their childhood,” says Adams. “They saw them at a time in their life when they had a sense of wonder.” Oberhauser says monarch butterflies continue to matter to people as adults. “They not only tell us what is going on in the natural world,” she says, “they make us care.”

However, monarch numbers have plummeted, and a just-issued report by the World Wildlife Fund, the Mexico Department of the Environment and the Protected Natural Areas Commission about last year’s overwintering population estimates the species is in “grave danger.” Some scientists fear the northward migration of monarchs may just end if there are not sufficient numbers to reproduce and adequate habitat for the migrating insects that remain.

Monarchs in Crisis

The challenges facing this intrepid wanderer are many. Monarch butterflies embark on what is considered one of the great migrations in all of nature, with each round trip involving multiple generations of insects that return to ancestral wintering grounds, never having known or learned from previous generations how to get there. The first generation moves northward (from Florida, Mexico or southern California) in February and March. Females lay eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants and then die soon after. The larvae, or caterpillars, from the next generation of monarchs pupate (spin a chrysalis), and after 10 days or so transform into butterflies that continue to move northward, perhaps for hundreds of miles more where the adult females find milkweed plants and repeat the cycle. But the migration is not over then. The fourth generation, which lives for six to eight months, up to three or four times as long as preceding generations, begins a thousand-mile or longer flight south where the butterflies four generations removed from the original return to ancestral wintering areas to overwinter till the next spring and begin the process again. 

At every turn, however, monarchs face increasing threats to their existence. Monarchs must have milkweed plants on which to lay eggs, which then feed the larvae of the next generation. Milkweeds are common roadside plants and agricultural weeds that are generally very hardy, but with changing agricultural practices and destruction of this plant’s best habitat areas, much of the milkweeds have been lost, and therefore, so have the monarchs. 

Many of the monarchs that migrate to the north cross the “corn belt” of the United States, a vast area of fertile farmland that encompasses more than a dozen large Midwestern states. Corn fields used to contain an abundance of milkweed plants, and the Midwest produced nearly 80 percent of monarchs that migrated to Mexico, most of them from eggs laid on milkweeds left growing in the corn rows. Since the late 1990s, however, farmers have been planting herbicide-resistant row crops, often called “Roundup-ready” crops after the trade name of the herbicide glyphosphate that is applied to fields, sometimes by planes and helicopters. The herbicide kills the weeds but not the crops, and worst of all, it also kills all the milkweed plants, which can normally survive regular cultivating but not the application of this herbicide. 

Other insecticides, notably the neo- nicotinoids (which are implicated in the large-scale die-off of bees), may also affect monarchs by making the milkweed leaves toxic to monarch caterpillars. “Even the leaves of milkweed plants grown in nurseries may be toxic to monarchs if the plants have been treated with these insecticides,” Oberhauser says.

Loss of habitat and loss of host plants are not the only threats monarchs face. Illegal logging in the wintering grounds of monarchs in Mexico has reduced overwintering habitat. Extreme weather events, such as storms, floods and especially recent historic droughts faced by California, Texas, and other Western and Southwestern states, are seriously degrading monarch survival. “The resource base for monarchs has really hit bottom,” says John Pleasants, a professor in the Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology department at Iowa State University. “The habitat in agricultural fields is just gone. In the past couple of years, extreme weather events have depressed numbers even more. Previously, even if conditions in Texas were bad, monarchs could recover in the Midwest. Now, every new trouble — drought, fire, storms — is just another blow.” 

What Can Parks Do?

Perhaps one of the few bright spots in this otherwise grim litany about the causes of the rapid decline of the monarch is that parks may be able to do a lot to help save this much-loved species from disappearing from our landscape. Many experts point to the monarch butterfly’s continued existence as critical to the welfare of our planet, food supply and overall biodiversity of both plants and other insects. Near or total decimation of the monarch butterfly — not to mention the several species of bees that are also crucial for the pollination of food crops — would start a devastating domino effect whereby myriad plants and other insects that depend on each other for food, shelter and beneficial chemicals might also disappear. The challenge is huge and the stakes are high, but park and recreation agencies, aided by support from volunteers and the public at large, are in a unique position to make a dramatic impact on the monarch’s fight for survival.

What can parks do? Plenty, according to monarch experts from around the country. “I am big on giving reasons for hope,” says Oberhauser. The greatest challenge to restore the monarch is to address the loss of habitat that has crushed this species. Chip Taylor, professor at the University of Kansas and director of Monarch Watch, says, “We have lost fully 30 percent of the breeding habitat of monarchs since 1996 — [more than] 100 million acres.” Knowledgeable observers agree that this is a stunning statistic. Most of the loss of habitat has come from the introduction of herbicide-resistant plants and the resulting loss of milkweed within cropland, but a large percentage has come from the conversion of traditional conservation lands and “waste” places, like field edges, roadsides, drain ditches and other areas that may not mean much to farmers and landowners, but which might be ideal habitat where milkweed can thrive.

The answer, according to Taylor, is to create more habitat for monarchs. “We have to plant milkweed and other beneficial plants.” He says Monarch Watch has created an efficient and scalable method of producing native seed and plants, and he feels they will be able to meet demand for both spring and fall planting seasons. Oberhauser agrees and believes park and recreation agencies can be pivotal in increasing prime habitat for monarchs. “The habitat lost in agricultural lands due to herbicides and other reasons is not coming back,” she says. “We need to concentrate on other available habitat. When you look at all the reasons for the decline of monarchs, the first and most important reason is habitat.” 

One way to create more habitat for monarchs is to establish Monarch Waystations, which are designated habitat areas managed for monarchs. They can be of any size and in any location, but there are criteria for establishing and maintaining them (see the Monarch Waystation program). Joyce Carroll of Iowa City Parks and Recreation says her agency established their three Waystations after applying for and receiving a $2,000 grant from the Rockwell Collins Green Communities program. They also planted hundreds of native nectar plants and milkweeds and installed signage and related educational materials about the monarch. Waystations are eminently fundable projects for park and recreation agencies, and having them certified helps to build a larger mosaic of habitat areas on migration routes for monarchs. 

A textbook example of how to restore larger grasslands habitat suitable for monarchs and other wildlife is taking place in the Power of Flight area of Panola Mountain State Park in Georgia. Resource Manager Phil Delestrez says they have enlisted a host of partnering organizations, including the Georgia Native Plant Society, the Georgia Botanical Society, The Nature Conservancy and the Atlanta Audubon Society to convert about 200 acres of river-bottom fescue pasture into native grassland using locally collected seed only. A carefully scripted regime of fire, spot-herbicide use to control non-native and invasive plants, and active management has produced a high-quality grassland habitat for all types of wildlife.

One of the best things that parks can do to support the future of the monarch is to educate the public about the need for monarch conservation. Oberhauser says that parks are ideal places to create and sustain new habitat. “Whatever we do in parks will have an added advantage of education and public awareness, and this will be magnified beyond anything else we can do,” she shares.

In Grand Prairie, Texas, the Department of Parks, Arts and Recreation has taken education and celebration of the monarch to a whole new level. Mariana Espinoza, senior recreation supervisor, says their 2013 Flight of the Monarch event attracted an astonishing 4,000 people who were involved in programs and activities to celebrate monarchs, learn about their life cycle and find out how everyone can help protect them. The festival included a Kids Zone, arts and crafts, kite flying, costumes, entertainment and distribution of native seeds, and it culminated in a release of 425 tagged monarch butterflies. More than just a highly successful event, the agency has engaged its entire community on a year-round basis in awareness and active conservation of monarch butterflies. 

Paula Hill of Virginia State Parks says they hold a Monarch Butterfly Fiesta at Caledon State Park each year to promote monarch conservation. In addition, they do programs in local schools, and they also tag and release monarchs that are collected at the park from August through mid-October, reporting the numbers to Monarch Watch. However, she reported on this year’s monarch numbers, and it is a cautionary tale if you expect to plan a major event for the public during migration. “This year, the drop in monarch numbers was startling,” she explains. “We didn’t find monarchs on most of the programs, and I only really saw migration waves on two days in early October. They were here and gone in a matter of a few hours.”

An Action Plan for Parks

Make no mistake, park and recreation agencies across the country are already stepping up to save the monarch. A query to NRPA’s professional networks and discussion groups elicited literally hundreds of responses from park and recreation professionals who were already engaged in monarch conservation activities. The positive response from the 10 Million Kids Outdoors network of more than 650 park and recreation agencies was overwhelming. Many agencies see monarch conservation as an ideal way to connect kids — and adults — to nature and the outdoors in a meaningful way that promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning, citizen science and environmental education. 

However, with the dramatic decline of monarch numbers and the proliferation of serious threats to this species, the future of the monarch is seriously in doubt if parks don’t step up to help solve this conservation crisis. Recent discussions with representatives of the major national organizations involved in monarch conservation indicate that they would truly welcome a collective effort from park and recreation professionals to do more for the conservation of this threatened species. 

Clearly, the most valuable action that public parks can take is to create habitat, but there is so much more that can be done. This includes planting milkweed, both seeds and plants, and other nectar-bearing plants in appropriate habitat; managing existing lands better by controlling invasive species; restoring grasslands and prairie habitats; conducting education and awareness activities that involve the public in citizen science and monitoring; partnering with conservation organizations to take the message to schools, community groups and the media; holding events and festivals to make the whole conservation effort fun as well as educational; mobilizing volunteers in the collection of seeds, the monitoring of migration and the creation of habitat; creating and certifying Waystations and butterfly gardens; and installing signage and educational displays. There is much that you can do.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.

Blooms, Bees, Butterflies and Birds Turn Backyards into Havens for Wildlife

From bird watchers to butterfly lovers, more and more people across the country are transforming their gardens into havens for wildlife in celebration of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife Month, coming this May. Wildlife gardening provides food, water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young. NWF’s approach to gardening nurtures wildlife and also provides some important benefits for homeowners, including the need for less water and a low-maintenance landscape. Join more than 150,000 other wildlife gardeners across the country by participating in this movement and explore obtaining a Certified Wildlife Habitat designation. Click here for more information about Garden for Wildlife Month, gardening tips, resources and certifying a Wildlife Habitat with NWF. 

Resources for Butterfly Conservation

Monarch Resources

Monarch Watch

Comprehensive resource on monarch conservation, including info on establishing Waystations, considerable “how-to” info  and an online store with native milkweed seeds

Pollinator Partnership

Users can download and print a free brochure that gives basic facts about the monarch and what landowners and the public can do to help. The site also offers a free color brochure for public distribution (shipping not included).

Users can also download a series of excellent new habitat-development manuals with regionalized planting guides. Developed for utility companies in managing rights-of-way and utility corridors, they are equally valuable for parks.

The site is also the home of S.H.A.R.E., a network and database of public and private areas set aside for pollinators.

Monarch Joint Venture

Coalition of agencies and organizations working on a collaborative approach to monarch conservation, habitat restoration, research and education

Monarch Lab

University of Minnesota website with very good monarch resources and educational content

North American Butterfly Association

National organization with local chapters; sponsors annual butterfly counts, produces magazines, and provides info to landowners on butterfly gardening and habitat

The Xerces Society

Excellent all-around info on monarchs, bees and other invertebrates. Interactive webpages include specific recommendations on plant species, habitat and other info for regions of the U.S.

General Butterfly Resources

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Excellent overall information resource on butterflies and moths

The Children’s Butterfly Site

Good site for kids and teachers

Electronic Resources on Lepidoptera

For the seriously geeky; very comprehensive site, covers butterflies and moths