Monarchs vanish as Milkweed declines

Monarch ButterflyRoundup threatens millions of winged ambassadors

Monarch butterflies are alive for just a handful of weeks and yet in that short time they fly right into the depths of our imaginations. There’s much about them that we do not know and perhaps this is their greatest lesson– that man can watch and wonder.  As scientists and wildlife preservationists have documented the rapid decline of monarchs, efforts are being made to preserve these sacred creatures the Australians call “the wanderers”.

The story of the migration of North American monarchs is full of mysteries. We know that they make an annual two way migration but how they know where to go and exactly what happens to them along the way is unknown. We know that they seem to like to travel in swarms. In March, the Mexican monarchs become active and as they start to fly north and east, they search for milkweed plants where they can lay their eggs, therefore ensuring the next generations survival.

The migrating females lay eggs as they travel, recolonizing the southern United States along the way. Those caterpillars turn into a second and third generation of butterflies and they are the ones who will continue the migration across the US and into Canada. They somehow know where to go as they land in the very places where their parents once lived. The fourth generation of monarchs somehow know how to migrate back to the homes of their ancestors and do so in early Fall where they settle in parts of southern California and Mexico until the following Spring when the cycle begins all over again.

In February of this year, President Obama, Mexico’s President Peña Nieto, and Canada’s Prime Minister Harper united in a three country quest to preserve the monarch butterfly and to take steps to protect their migration from Canada to the US and Mexico. That annual migration covers 2,800 miles across the three continents.

“This butterfly migration reflects an ancient bond between three nations that pre-date the countries themselves. Business as usual may permanently sever this bond, but today’s pledge gives us renewed hope that we can save the monarch migration for centuries to come,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund.

Monarchs have cultural significance as well. As the monarchs tend to arrive back in Mexico in early November, it coincides with the Day of the Dead and many people there believe that the butterflies are the souls of their loved ones coming back home.

As butterfly colonies have declined, experts point to three potential reasons for their demise, climate change, deforestation and the destruction of milkweed– a flowering plant essential to their survival. Karen Oberhauser, a professor at the University of Minnesota, and  an expert on monarchs says that “Numerous lines of evidence demonstrate that the Corn Belt in the US Midwest is the primary source for monarchs hibernating in Mexico.” She believes that the use of crops that can handle pesticides, Roundup in particular, is wiping out milkweed across the country and that the monarchs will follow. “These genetically modified crops have resulted in the extermination of milkweed from many agricultural habitats,” says Oberhauser.

Chemical and Engineering News reports that a petition was filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council Fund asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review of the impact of the use of the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup. In 2015 the EPA will review the rules for glyphosate, something that the agency hasn’t done since the pesticide was first introduced in 1993. Back then the monarch populations were a billion strong. Now the annual migration is said to be in the millions.

To further complicate things, the pollen from crops genetically modified to resist Roundup can drift for miles, so that one farmer’s desire to use them will supercede the choices of all the other farmers around him. His Roundup resistant crops will contaminate fields and continue to snowball across the country, much like we already see in pockets of the Midwest.

Will the combined promises of three international leaders be enough to save monarchs?  In a statement, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said that all three leaders agreed to “create a tri-national working group for the conservation of the monarch butterfly”. We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries”, he said.

Wildlife experts agree.

“Today’s declaration is a smart first step to save the monarch migration, but we can’t stop there. We must restore and protect habitat in all three countries, limit the use of herbicides in the U.S. and Canada, and halt habitat loss from both, grassland conversion in the U.S. and deforestation in Mexico,” said Omar Vidal, Director General, WWF in Mexico.

The mystery surrounding the great migration of one of Nature’s most flashiest insects is something that our future generations might be able to unlock if we do everything we can to preserve monarchs in the interim. Then the wanderer can soar into the hearts of our own descendants.

To help counteract the destruction felt from these genetically engineered crops, readers can vote yes for Measure  15-119 and gardeners here in the Rogue Valley can be proactive in planting milkweed throughout southern Oregon.