Monarch Butterfly Populations Are Declining In The West And Need Your Help
Have you noticed that you don’t see as many monarch butterflies as you did a few years ago? We are beginning to see a whole lot less monarch butterflies than we did couple of decades ago, when many of us learned of their life cycle in school biology class. Scientists now believe the decline in Monarch population is a long-term trend, rather than a short-term phenomenon. In fact, over the past 20 plus years, the total monarch population has declined more than 85-90 percent in North America. Moreover, as of late last year, the monarch population west of the Rocky Mountains was at an all time low!
The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable species in North America. This beautiful and majestic insect has been known to inspire people with its fragile beauty, and amaze with its impressive annual migration pattern. More importantly, the Monarch maintains not only its own habitat, but plays a vital role in supporting the habitats of other species, like pheasant, quail, waterfowl. Monarch butterflies, like all butterflies, birds, bats and bees are pollinators, and are vital to the habitats and life-cycles of many animal species.
About The Monarch, It’s Life Cycle And Migration
The life cycle of the Monarch spans 3 to 4 generations and it’s migration pattern is truly amazing. Unable to survive the cold winters in the continental U.S. and southern Canada, the Monarch butterflies migrate south each autumn. , Masses of Monarchs embark on the nearly 3000 mile journey which takes them to the treetops of a remote mountain area in central Mexico. It’s here that the butterflies cover the oyamel fir trees in blankets, numbering in the millions. The Monarch generation that migrates on the epic journey lives longer than breeding generations, some six to nine months longer, in order to complete the trip to wait out winter. When Spring arrives, the lethargic, hibernating monarchs migrate over the summer feeding, and later breeding on milkweed plants. The breeding generations of full grown Monarch, also includes the larvae, caterpillar and Chrysalis stages, but only live an estimated three to four weeks, nestled in-between the fall and spring migrations.
The Populations Are Declining
Many factors are contributing to the decline in Monarch populations, including: loss of habitat, and loss of its host plant, milkweed along with other nectar plants, and increased use of herbicides and pesticides. According to research, climate change, and drought, may also play a part.
The population in Utah and the West has declined from over a million monarchs in the late 1990s to just 200,000 in recent years based on overwintering counts of adult monarch butterflies in California. As mentioned earlier, the total count in 2018 was the lowest on record, at around 30,000 monarchs.
How You Can Help
Become a Citizen Scientist
To better coordinate monarch conservation work in the West and improve their numbers, many programs in the Western U.S. are organizing monarch working groups to help the western Monarch population. You can get involved in many of these projects and act as a citizen scientist to help map and record milkweed and monarch sightings throughout your state, through the use of smartphone apps. The Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project is a collaborative effort open to any relevant geographical area. Their Monarch SOS app, available through the Apple App Store, has links to many other projects and programs. In addition, citizen scientists throughout the west can also participate by submitting data and observances to the iNaturalist app (available in Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store). The Wyoming Biodiversity Citizen Science Initiative also utilizes the iNaturalist app, and encourages citizen scientists to contribute their observations from the field by using the app.
If your state doesn’t have a specific Monarch conservation program, you can still do your part to get involved and help conserve the monarch butterfly.
Whether it’s a small pot on your front steps, a simple, native flower garden, or a full backyard pollinator garden, there are many ways you as an individual can provide essential habitat. Even though some luck is involved in enticing monarchs through your garden, or getting them to stay and breed, a great way to get started is to plant milkweed and other native nectar plants.
There are 14 varieties of milkweed native to Wyoming, two of the more common (and presentable) being Butterfly and Swamp milkweeds. In addition to milkweeds, you can make sure to have other nectar-rich flowering plants, like Mist flowers, Liatris Ligulistylis, and the Mexican sunflower planted from spring through the fall.
If you are looking to plant milkweeds, you may be able to find seed from plants near your house or along streams. Seeds may also be available for sale in your area, or you can ask your local nursery about possibly carrying milkweeds.
Practice Good Stewardship
Be a thoughtful gardener and garden responsibly, by attempting to avoid species that are invasive and may escape into the local environment. Many native plants and natural areas are threatened by competition from invasive species.
You can also choose to garden organically which will also help to minimize impacts on Monarchs and other pollinators.
Eager to get started on a butterfly garden? Or incorporate more native nectar-rich plants into your existing garden? We have included an easy seven step checklist to help you to organize and plan for your next steps.
Gather your supplies and research what varieties of milkweed and wildflowers are native to your area. You can also look up pollinator-friendly plant lists for your region. If you’re starting from seeds, find a local seed supplier.
What you’ll need
• A yard, raised bed or some flower pots
• Garden tools to break the soil or build a raised bed
• Extra dirt and mulch
• Native milkweed and nectar plants
Seven easy steps
1. Choose your location: Butterflies enjoy basking in the sun. Gardens should be planted in sunny spots, with some protection from the wind.
2. Take a look at your soil: Break ground to see the consistency of the soil in your yard. Soil may influence the kinds of plants you can grow, or may require special considerations. If you find that your soil type doesn’t match the plants you’d like to plant, you might consider building a raised bed or using flower pots.
3. Prep your soil: If you’re planting in your yard, remove the lawn and current plant cover and rake the soil. Additional dirt can be helpful no matter the location and is necessary for raised beds and flower pots – add your soil to the bed or pot.
4. Choose your plants: Find a nursery near you that sells native and local plants and milkweed for your area. Native plants are the ideal choice because they require less maintenance and tend to be heartier.
◦ Choose plants that have not been treated with pesticides, insecticides or neonicotinoids.
◦ Plant perennials to ensure your plants come back each year and don’t require a lot of maintenance.
◦ Choose a diversity of plants that bloom throughout the seasons to ensure pollinators benefit in the spring, summer and fall. This will also ensure that your garden is bright and colorful for months!
5. Choosing seeds or small plants: Small plants that have already started growing in a nursery are simple and show instant return on pollinator visits, especially if you are planting in a small space. Seeds are best if you have more time. If you’d like to use seeds, plan ahead to plant in spring or fall, giving the seeds time to germinate. Seeds can also be best if you are doing a very large garden as they tend to cost less. Remember to water your seeds even before you see plants.
6. Plant your flowers and milkweed: For small plants, dig holes just big enough for the root system. Cover the roots with dirt and reinforce with dirt or straw mulch to reduce weed growth. For seeding, spread seeds across your freshly prepared garden and cover them with dirt. Consider adding some flat rocks so butterflies can bask in the sun!
7. Wait, watch, water and weed your garden: It may take some time, but you will eventually see butterflies and other pollinators enjoying your garden. Make sure to weed and water your garden to keep it healthy.
Best of luck, and thank you for helping monarchs, bumble bees and other pollinators!