Recently I had the opportunity to hear Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch, speak at the Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference in Columbus. He began his presentation with a video of the butterflies wintering location in the mountain forests of Mexico. Tree trunks and limbs were covered with the colorful butterflies. The air was filled with monarchs on the wing. What a magnificent sight this must be.
“It is truly a spectacular sight,” said Taylor. He went on to describe what is called a “cascade,” where tens of thousands of butterflies break away from the trees when a cloud, or bird pass over, or a gust of wind kicks up. “You cannot see the person next to you. Every other sound is drowned out by the flapping of wings. It is one of the world’s greatest migrations.”
As most of us know, this unique and amazing migration is in danger of coming to an end if several critical factors don’t change in the near future. While early reports for last years migrants were good, that is no longer the case. Taylor says that on March 8th & 9th of this year, a devastating ice storm killed tens of thousands of wintering monarchs, reducing the population dramatically just prior to their spring migration northward. He had a picture of the ground covered with dead monarchs, inches deep.
A recent study by the UN says 40% of pollinator species are on the brink of extinction. Like many of our pollinator populations, the monarch is one catastrophic event away from an incident that could decimate the populations to a point of no return. Combine that one event with the other factors bringing the populations down, habitat loss, chemicals, diseases, and we are teetering on the brink of pollinator declines the likes of which we have never seen. While this sounds dire, the hopeful news is the word is out, and people, administrations, including the current one here in the U.S., and the global community are taking notice and steps to help. But, will it be enough in time to make the difference?
In the case of honey bees, where once only 20% of our honey supply was imported, now 80% is imported. The decline of pollinators directly affects our food security. Pollinators are a keystone species, should they collapse, many other ecosystems suffer as well.
“The monarch butterfly is the messenger, a vehicle to spread the word for all pollinators,” said Taylor. While many pollinator species are in danger, the monarch is a much-loved symbol that the public can relate to.
In 2005, Monarch Watch began to focus on habitat restoration. Taylor refers to a study done in 2000, in the Midwest where corn and soybean fields, scattered with patches of milkweed, covered thousands of acres. This area was shown to produce the largest population of monarchs on their migratory route. This, of course, was prior to the introduction of GMOs and herbicides that eradicated milkweed. Ninety percent of monarch tags recovered were from the midwest.
“Tremendous changes have taken place over the last 15 years,” said Taylor. GMOs, renewable fuel standards that have led to thousands of acres of range and grassland being converted to cropland (24 million acres over 4 years), development eating up 1.24 million acres of land a year, intensive agriculture reducing field margins and pollinator habitat, herbicides to control marginal lands, insecticides, degradation of overwintering sights in Mexico, and unfavorable conditions during the breeding migration.
Monarch Watch has big plans for trying to turn the tide of decline for the monarch and all pollinators. “We must get farmers involved,” said Taylor. “We have to improve and restore one to two million acres a year just to keep from losing ground. To gain ground, we must do even more.”
In addition to getting farmers on board with increasing milkweed numbers, this year he hopes to sell 200,000 milkweed plugs for planting. In 2013, Taylor said he started with 22,000 plugs he’d convinced skeptical nurseries to grow for him. “They said, whose going to buy these, they’re weeds.” But, three years later he plans on selling out with 200,000 plugs. They now have five nurseries growing the plugs and are 1,500 calls and emails behind on orders. Taylor is also hoping to increase the protected area in Mexico where the monarchs winter. Monarch Watch pays a small amount of money to the local people in the wintering location in Mexico to hunt through the dead butterflies and return the tags for research. While he says he could get by without this information, he believes, giving the butterflies value to the local people is a way of helping protect them.
Taylor summarized his talk by highlighting the fact that, humankind in general has been pursuing economic gains without paying attention to the consequences for far too long. While the monarch is the messenger, the message is that we must make these changes for everything that shares the same habitat. Each one of us must do what we can, no matter how small, to turn this thing around.