Final Curtain Call for Monarch Butterflies?

If the Monarchs become extinct, what happens to the other pollinators we depend on?

As some of you may have read in the past month and last fall, the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) population is at its lowest since records of their migratory numbers were first recorded in the 1970s.  There are many reasons for their decline, most of which are human-caused: illegal logging in the Oyamel Fir (Abies religiosa) forests* in the mountains of Mexico; indiscriminate pesticide spraying in both agricultural and residential lawn settings – a must if you wish to maintain those artificial and sterile environments; shortsighted Federal policies, like the latest Farm Bill signed by the Obama Administration (whose conservation legacy is pathetic); the loss of native Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) – a staple of the Monarch diet – and their native grassland habitats to plowing for monoculture row crops in tidy and sterile sectional squares, along with conversion to tame (non-native) and boring grazing pastures and high-maintenance hay pastures; fire suppression, which has resulted in a decrease in flowering herbaceous plants due to an increase in woody species; land fragmentation from a myriad of anthropogenic actions, especially as of late, from the oil and gas industry due to roads, well pads, pipeline right of ways, and fracturing fluid retention ponds.
*Adding the effects of anthropogenic climate change to illegal logging and land fragmentation will cause the Oyamel Fir’s habitat to be reduced significantly in the next 15-20 years.

Adding to all of the above stressors, pollinators have to travel longer distances with less food supply than in years past.  This is what happens when cookie cutter suburbia neighborhoods are built and the native vegetation is scraped off and replaced with a biological desert of monoculture lawns and asphalt.  The same thing goes for strip malls, Roundup Ready farms, and every other human construction project that happens on a daily basis.  Little by little, native pollinator habitat is stripped away in the name of “progress”.  Since 1996, according to Chip Taylor, Monarchs and other pollinators have lost a staggering 167 million acres of habitat to development and row crop agriculture.

Graphic courtesy of MonarchWatch. In the last 20 years, the Monarch Butterfly habitat has decreased by half due to human causes. This year, the Monarchs had 0.67 hectares of wintering habitat, or 1.6 acres for approximately 35 million Monarchs.  Let those number sink in for awhile.

Some people still wonder why protecting pollinators like the Monarchs is so imperative to our future.  The simple reason is pollinators do the hard work of pollinating more than 70% of the worldwide food crops, and without them, we would lose 70% of our worldwide food supply.  After all, in North America, the Monarchs and other pollinators and their habitat were here first; we humans are only visitors – a concept many people haven’t tried to understand or just don’t want to, pulling out the ol’ ecological apathy card.

Why not remove half of your lawn and replace it with a native plant garden for pollinators?  Just adding 12 native species is a tremendous increase in biodiversity than what the boring lawn can ever offer.

Why not, in a newly proposed subdivision, leave the areas with the greatest concentration of diversity intact?  If that adds to the cost of the overall project, it’s cheaper in the long run because it becomes a conservation cost which benefits everyone – whether they understand that or not.

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on Milkweed species. Those plants are the only ones that offer caterpillars the protection they need from predators, by making them taste very bitter. This protection is stored in their bodies even as they mature into adult butterflies. Without Milkweeds, there are no Monarchs.

We need less lawn, less monoculture row crop farms, better-planned subdivisions, better-planned golf courses, and a change in people’s thinking so that we can move away from associating only the color green with beauty and healthy landscapes.  “You have to get over the color green”, Wallace Stegner wrote, “you have to get used to an inhuman scale.”  In the grand scheme of things, the Homo sapiens species is small and insignificant in regards to the world biosphere as a whole.  We are detractors, we are the bottom of the pecking order in regards to native ecologies of our planet.  But some of us are healers of human-damaged lands, and some of us are finally realizing that ecology does matter – even if it doesn’t benefit local economics in the traditional sense of quick returns on investments.  The momentum is picking up and the tide seems to be changing, although it could be too late on some fronts.

However, where are we supposed to be planting all this milkweed when milkweed habitat – grasslands – are spatially occupied by oil and gas infrastructure, roads, cities, housing developments, agriculture, and all the other anthropogenic inventions and constructions?  I doubt highly that little backyard prairies and corporate wildflower meadows are the answer.  Perhaps those small, disjunct plantings give rest and rejuvenation to only a handful of Monarchs.  What about the rest of them?  I think we would do best in this situation to not focus singly on one species – that is narrow-minded and short-sighted.  The issue then isn’t so much Monarch decline, it’s decline in grassland habitat for milkweeds and other pollinator plants that support Monarch and others.

For more reading:
The Xerces Society
Native Bee Conservancy
Monarch Butterfly Watch
Native Pollinators
Texas Butterfly Ranch
Make Way for Monarchs
Bumblebee Watch

Note: If you are going to jump on board with the “Plant Milkweeds!” campaign, and you should, please do your research beforehand and plant only Milkweeds (Aslecpias) that are native to your area!  Native Milkweed species matter just as much as where your seed comes from, so beware of “milkweed in a can” type packages and ask seed dealers if they can tell you where they got the seed of each specific Milkweed species.  If they won’t tell you or don’t know, shop elsewhere.  Better yet, collect your own. Milkweed pods are easy to gather, and it is far more rewarding to collect seed by hand than to purchase it.


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