by Sue Schumacher
The monarch butterfly is the most well-known butterfly in North America. Monarchs can be seen in urban and rural areas, pausing to land on a variety of flowers and feed on nectar. Every autumn, they journey to Mexico and hibernate among evergreen fir branches. They return north in spring and reproduce throughout the summer, and their descendants make the same journey south in autumn.
During the past 20 years, the monarch butterfly population has declined by over 80 percent throughout much of its range. The main reasons for the decline are the loss of breeding and overwintering habitat in North America and the loss of milkweed plants and other native flowering plants that produce nectar. The monarch caterpillar can eat only milkweed leaves; without milkweed, caterpillars cannot survive. Milkweed used to be quite common along the edges of farm fields and even grew among the plants. But changing agricultural practices that remove non-crop plants from fields and the areas adjacent to them has been the most significant loss of habitat in the U.S.
In 2014, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum that called for creating a strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. That same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a finding that the monarch butterfly might be listed as either Endangered or Threatened under the Endangered Species Act – a determination it plans to issue in 2019.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contacted the 17 Midwestern flyway states and recommended that each state develop a monarch butterfly conservation plan. Each of these flyway states, stretching from Texas to the Dakotas and Ohio, is developing a plan that will create, restore, and enhance monarch habitat. Here in Wisconsin, a broad partnership among numerous stakeholders is moving forward with the drafting of a statewide plan. The stakeholders developing the plan include representatives from agriculture, research, citizen monitoring groups, plant nurseries, utilities, municipal highway departments, state and federal agencies, and numerous non-profit organizations. The draft plan will be provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018.
In the meantime, there are many things that you can do to help save the monarchs! You can plant the critically needed milkweed plants for the caterpillars, plant nectar flowers for the adults, or even assist with tagging adult butterflies, to track their migration.
Websites with information about monarchs, suggestions on how to create habitat, and how to get involved with citizen science opportunities:
Information about Monarchs in Wisconsin: