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How to Support Monarch Butterfly Conservation—During Earth Week and Beyond!

By Matthew Shepherd on 27 April 2019

Learn how you can make a difference for North America's most iconic butterfly.

Monarchs, probably the most loved butterflies in North America, have fluttered into the news frequently in recent months. Some of the articles have presented positive stories, and some have not—the picture is mixed.

Monarchs in eastern North America have had a pretty good year. The conditions during critical breeding and migration periods in 2018 were optimal and the number of monarchs that overwintered in Mexico was more than twice as large as the prior year. It is definitely something to celebrate! The returning butterflies have begun to breed. Maps show monarchs have reached as far as Iowa, Indiana, and Pennsylvania already this spring.

 

An orange monarch perches regally atop a flower. The green background is blurred out.
In the eastern U.S., monarchs had a good year in 2018 with a significant increase in the number overwintering in Mexico. The spring migration has already reached as far north as Iowa and Pennsylvania. (Photo: Bryan E. Reynolds)

 

The long-term trends are less rosy. Although the area of forest covered by overwintering colonies (which is how the monarch population is estimated by WWF – Mexico) was up by 144% in year, the total population is still only one-third of what it was a couple of decades ago. So let’s celebrate the increase, but also not forget that the monarch still needs our help. There is more work to be done to ensure that this good year will not be a one-off occurrence.

The monarchs that breed in western North America migrate toward the Pacific to overwinter in tree groves scattered along the coast from Mendocino County in California to Baja California in Mexico. For twenty years, counts have been made of overwintering butterflies thanks to volunteers with the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. The numbers have been dwindling, but the results this winter were shocking: less than 28,500 butterflies. This is a steep drop from the prior year, and an almost complete collapse from the 1980s, when there were 4.5 million monarchs overwintering in California.

 

In response to these alarming numbers, the Xerces Society released a call to action that highlights the five most urgent conservation priorities for the western monarchs:

  1. Protect and manage coastal overwintering sites.

  2. Restore breeding and migratory habitat in California.

  3. Protect monarchs and their habitat from pesticides

  4. Protect, manage, and restore summer breeding and fall migration habitat outside of California.

  5. Answer key research questions about how to best aid western monarch recovery.

 

This infographic has a grid of 160 monarchs on the left, symbolizing historic levels. On the right is one monarch, symbolizing current levels--because the ratio between then and now is 160:1.

 

Some of these steps will need special knowledge or extra resources (i.e., money and land!), but some of the most important can be done by anyone, anywhere. Monarch caterpillars need milkweeds to eat, and adults need nectar-rich flowers to fuel their breeding and power their migration. These can be grown anywhere—in gardens and parks, along creeks and ditches, beside roads and under powerlines, in hedgerows and meadows, and even in pots on porches or by doorways. These patches of milkweed don’t have to be big, but they do need to be there.

Monarchs are faring better in the eastern states, but they still need your help for their numbers to rebound. As in the western states, creating habitat that has milkweeds, nectar plants, and is free of pesticides is valuable, no matter how large or small your patch of plants is.

The Xerces website has lots of information to help you, including guidance on growing and planting milkweed, lists of great monarch nectar plants, and advice on pesticides. You can also visit the Milkweed Seed Finder to discover sources of milkweed seeds and plants.

 

A bright orange monarch with a torn wing clings to bright pink milkweed blooms in a grassy landscape.
Submitting monarch and milkweed sightings to community science projects, including the Xerces Society’s Monarch Milkweed Mapper, serves to broaden understanding of monarch distribution and will help guide future conservation efforts. (Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)

 

It is vital that we get more milkweeds and nectar plants into the landscape to support monarchs. But it is also important that we choose these plants carefully. Work done by Project Monarch Health is showing that it is better to plant native milkweed species, specific to your geographic area. We urge people not to plant tropical milkweed, which is explained further on our blog. Monarch Joint Venture also has an informative fact sheet on the topic.

If you don’t have a place to grow plants—or just want one more thing you can do!—you can assist with building knowledge of where monarch go and where they breed by submitting observations to community science projects. In the western states, check out the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, which is gathering sightings of monarchs and milkweeds. You can also report North America-wide sightings of monarchs to Journey North.

Helping the monarch back to full health isn’t going to be easy or quick, but we can’t stand by and do nothing. If we all plant a small patch of milkweed and nectar plants, and all think about how we can change our actions to make things better for monarchs, together we can transform the landscape to allow the monarch to rebound—and give our children the gift of watching orange wings flap in the sunshine.

 

Additional Resources

Learn how to support pollinators and other invertebrates on our Earth Week page!

Read our Western Monarch Call to Action and learn how you can help.

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s Endangered Species Conservation Program.

 

Authors
Matthew has spent three decades working with people from all walks of life to create better places for wildlife. His career began in England and took him to Kenya before his arrival in the United States. He has worked for the Xerces Society since 1999, initially at the vanguard of the movement to protect pollinators, but now as director of communications & outreach. Matthew is author of numerous articles and other publications, including Attracting Native Pollinators (Storey Publishing, 2011) and Gardening for Butterflies (Timber Press, 2016). He lives in Oregon with his family, where they enjoy watching ocean waves, hiking in the mountains, kayaking the lakes and rivers, playing music, and reading, writing, and drinking coffee.

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