Monarch butterflies heading our way, but not as many as we hoped

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but their numbers are likely to be down this year.  Climate change–combined with habitat loss and other threats–dealt a heavy blow to the population, which enjoyed a celebrated threefold increase last fall.

Will Monarchs be listed as "threatened" under the Endnagered SPecies Act? We'll know in 3 years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy.Photo by Scott Ball

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but not as many as we had hoped.  Monarch on Cowpen daisy. Photo by Scott Ball

The weekend of March 8-9 proved to be a deadly setback for Monarchs. Just as they were heading to Texas from their winter roosts in Michoacán to create the first generation of 2016, a freak ice storm hit the forest where they overwinter. The frigid wind and weather killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies–about 7.4 percent of the 84 million roosting there, Mexico’s attorney general for environmental protection Alejandro Del Mazo told the Associated Press this week.

Even worse, the storm destroyed 133 acres of the Oyamel fir forest which serves as the Monarchs’ winter home as well as habitat to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, vascular plants and mushrooms. That lost canopy will take years, perhaps decades, to recover. And its service as a protective, insulating blanket for the Monarchs and other wildlife may be gone forever.

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Millions of Monarch butterflies froze to death in the March storm in Michoacán. Photo via Monarca via  Facebook

The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet,  traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.

Their journey starts in March where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of  eggs on milkweed plants—the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter–having never been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey.  The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.

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The freak ice and wind storm  destroyed 135 acres of their roosting forest. Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to a brief released by the World Wildlife Fund on August 23, the protected forest lost to the March sleet storm was four times that destroyed by illegal logging last year. Here’s the breakdown: of the 179 acres of forest lost in the last year in the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, 29.5 acres were destroyed by illegal logging, 133 acres by wind-fallen trees during the storm, and 16 acres by drought.

Experts agree that the ice storm got the season off to a bad start. Those of us who follow Monarchs noticed far fewer this spring, as the depleted population made its way north. We hoped they would recover in the summer breeding grounds.

Monarch migration map

The Monarch migration moves the iconic butterflies through the entire Eastern United States over the course of the summer. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

“Normally I collect eggs in the spring and I was down about 65% percent over seasons’ past,” said Cathy Downs, Education Outreach specialist for Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas at Lawrence-based organization that runs the citizen science tagging program that tracks the migrating butterflies.  Downs operates out of Comfort, Texas, just outside San Antonio.  “I would definitely say this was a really, really down spring.”

Further up the migratory path, social media posts from the summer breeding grounds bemoaned the general lack of Monarch butterflies.

Two tagged Monarchs

Looking forward to seeing more of these guys. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I only saw one Monarch a week ago up at Illinois Beach State Park, while we were walking the dunes, clearing them of white sweet clover,” Kathleen Garness of Forest Park, Illinois wrote to the DPLEX list June 20, an email list that reaches about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

Tony Kowall of Park Ridge, Illinois, agreed. “We really miss seeing and raising the Monarchs…. It is quite distressing to think how badly the population must of have hit with the storm earlier this year. Last year we raised 200 Monarchs.”

And this from Fred Kaluza in Detroit on the same email string: “Countryside looks like late July. Lots of uneaten milkweed. No Monarchs seen.”

Teresa Bailey‎, who lives north of Kansas City, Missouri, posted June 14 on Facebook:  “I still haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies yet. My common milkweed has grown six feet tall. Still no butterflies. I’m concerned. They should have been here a while ago.”

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Dr. Chip Taylor says we are likely to see the 2014 season again, second worst in history. Graph via Monarch Watch

Everyone’s worst suspicions were confirmed when  Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, issued his annual summer Monarch population status bulletin.

“All the data to this point in time suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in the migration and the overwintering numbers,” wrote Taylor in July, citing below normal first-of-season sightings and the ice storm.  “We will never have a comprehensive assessment of the impact of this weather event but it does appear to have been significant,” wrote Taylor, noting that some scientists were suggesting 50% of Monarchs had perished in the storm.

Despite that sad turnaround from a tripling of the population last fall, the migration is underway.  “Sightings of southbound Monarchs, intense nectaring, and the first overnight roosts are being reported,” read the headline in this week’s bulletin by Journey North, which tracks Monarch butterflies and other migrating creatures.

Journey North map

Sightings of adult Monarch butterflies as of August 25, 2016, according to Journey North.  Map via Journey North

With all the press Monarch butterflies have been getting this year, we have never been better prepared to welcome them as they move through our landscapes and gardens. In the past 18 months, millions of dollars in research has been earmarked for mIlkweed and nectar plant restoration programs, Monarch and pollinator education efforts, and general awareness of the important role Monarchs and other pollinators play in our ecosystem food web. Awareness across the Americas has never been higher.

That said, climate change will have the last word on how many Monarch butterflies will make the trip this year.

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Want to be sure to see Monarchs this fall? Join us October 22 during peak Monarch migration week in San Antoino at the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Events are FREE.

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When aphids suck the life from your milkweed, here’s how to safely get rid of them

The dreaded oleander aphids have arrived here and are trying to wreak havoc in my gardens. At a friend’s house today, I noticed that all of her milkweed is infested beyond hope….Are there any new ideas on how to deal with them? Thanks. –Jan LeVesque, Minneapolis

Jan LeVesque is not alone in her exasperation at the hands–rather, mouth parts–of plant sucking aphids.  Anyone who raises milkweed in an effort to attract Monarchs is familiar with the soft-bodied, squishy orange insects that seemingly take over anything in the Asclepias family.

Oleander aphids on Tropical milkweed

If you raise milkweed and Monarchs, you’re well acquainted with oleander aphids. Here they are on Tropical milkweed. Note the sticky, slick looking substance on the leaves. That’s honeydew. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Jan, like many before and after her, posted the above query on the Monarch Watch DPLEX list, an old school listserv that goes to hundreds of citizen and professional scientists and butterfly fans who follow the Monarch migration. And as usual, the community had plenty of ideas.

But before we explore how to kill them, let’s take a look at the interesting life cycle of these ubiquitous, annoying insects, known as oleander aphids, milkweed aphids, or by their Latin name, Aphis nerii.

First off, they are parthenogenic, which means they clone themselves and don’t require  mates to reproduce. In addition, the clones they produce are always female.  Yes, that’s right–all girls. “No boys allowed.”

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All female aphid colonies undermine our milkweeds. Photo via University of Florida

According to the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology “Featured Creatures” website, “The adult aphids are all female and males do not occur in the wild.”  Instead, the aphid moms deposit their all-female nymph broods on the stalks of our milkweed plants.  That generation morphs four more times until they grow up to become aphid moms who repeat the process.

Even more interesting, under normal conditions, adult female aphids do not sport wings, but get this: if conditions are crowded, or the plant is old and unappetizing (which happens as the summer progresses in our part of the world), the girls grow wings so they can fly away to greener pastures–or in this case, fresher milkweed. Aphids live 25 days and produce about 80 nymphs each.

This brilliantly efficient method of reproduction, says Featured Creatures, is one of the reasons “large colonies of oleander aphids…build quickly on infested plants.”

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Small populations of aphids are pretty harmless to the plants, but when you get a large colony, the milkweed suffers. The aphids insert their piercing mouthparts into the milkweed, literally sucking the life out of it as they enjoy the sweet liquid that courses through the plant. The high concentration of sugar in that liquid means the aphids have to eat a lot of it to get the protein they need.

That results in a profuse amount of excrement, called honeydew. It is prolific and forms a thin, sticky layer on the leaves of your milkweed, choking the absorption of essential nutrients.  It can also cause sooty mold, an ugly dark fungi that can cover your milkweed.

We have a fair amount of milkweed near the house and it’s been aphid free so far – except for one incarnata shoot on which a 3 inch long colony had formed with probably more than 500 aphids of all sizes. Not having mixed up any fancy aphid remedy and not having insecticidal soap, I looked under the sink for the handy spray bottle of 409. It wasn’t there – so, I grabbed the Windex instead. Last evening a quick inspection showed that all the aphids were blackened and dead. I checked again this morning and spotted one aphid. The plant seems unaffected by the treatment.  –-Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Once you have well-established infestation of aphids, the plant just goes downhill. The aphids themselves are also highly appetizing to Ladybugs, wasps and syrphid flies–all insects that eat aphids and Monarch or Queen eggs with equal abandon.

When I get a serious aphid infestation, I typically use a high pressure spray of water to blow the bugs off the plant. That simultaneously washes the honeydew off the milkweed, which will deter the arrival of ants and also clean the leaves so they can absorb sun, air, water and nutrients to fuel their growth.

My other method is to simply squish the aphids between my thumb and fingers and wipe them off the plant. Your thumb and fingers will turn bright gold, but will wash off.

Oleander aphids

A Ladybug’s favorite treat: aphids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some gardeners like to use alcohol or other additives with the water spray, but I prefer to keep that stuff off my plants.

As Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project wrote to the DPLEX list in July of 2015, “Detergent treatments will kill any live insects on aphid-infested plants, including Monarch eggs, Monarch larvae, and aphid predators like syrphid fly larvae, ladybug larvae, and lacewing larvae.”

Alas, even Dr. Oberhauser, who has decades of experience with aphids, admits “There is really no good way to kill aphids without killing everything else, except by trying to lower the population by carefully killing them by hand.”

If Monarch cats are not present, I spray with insecticidal soap and then rinse later with water hose. If that is ineffective, I move up to Neem oil and rinse it off also later. One and/or the other are very effective…. It is easy to go from 1 to 1,000s of aphids in a very short period of time.

— David Laderoute, Coordinator,  Missourians for Monarchs

Another option is biological control. Lady beetles or Ladybugs feed primarily on aphids. Somehow they seem to magically find their way to our milkweed gardens to feast on the yellow critters. Ladybugs can be purchased in bags at some garden centers and released to do their jobs.  But remember–they also eat butterfly eggs.

Hover flies and wasps also eat aphids. Wasps have a bizarre practice of laying their eggs on the aphids, then eating them from the inside out, leaving a brown shelled carcass in their wake. We often find these hollow corpses on our milkweed plants.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Pesticides will kill aphids, but they often remain in the plant for months and will also kill Monarch caterpillars. Photo by Sharon Sander

One good thing about aphids: if you see them on a plant in a nursery, you know the milkweed is clean, and has NOT been sprayed with systemic pesticides. We all want perfect looking plants, but the occasional aphid is a good sign that your plants are pure. See this post for more on that topic.

Need more ideas for getting rid of aphids?  Check out this useful post from The Monarch Butterfly Garden.  If you have new tips not covered here, please leave a comment below.  Good luck!

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That ain’t no Monarch: meet these OTHER caterpillars that feed on milkweed

More than any other, the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies are most closely associated with eating milkweed–anything in the Asclepias family. With their distinctive black, white and gold pin-striped suits and expressive dark tentacles reaching out into the universe, that’s no surprise.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are the most famous milkweed feeders. Photo by Monika Maeckle

They’re endearing, ubiquitous, easy to identify and we have a special relationship with them.

But there’s a at least three other caterpillars that eat milkweed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Last week I noticed this fellow noshing on a pot of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. 

Garden striped caterpillar

That ain’t no Monarch. It’s a Striped garden caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My first thought: “That ain’t no Monarch.”

Correct. It’s the Striped garden caterpillar, Trichordestra legitimata, which feasts not only on milkweed but other common garden greens–clover, goldenrod, yarrow, grasses and others. The Striped garden caterpillar turns into the rather nondescript Striped garden caterpillar moth, a grey, smallish creature with little black diamonds on his back. Check out these photos on Bugguide.net.

Here’s a better picture of the caterpillar, via Molly Jacobson.

Garden striped moth caterpillar

Molly Jacobson found this Striped  garden caterpillar crossing a path and resting on a dead leaf. Photo by Molly Jacobson

Dr. David L. Wagner, author of the useful Caterpillars of Eastern North America, describes the milkweed feeder on page 415 of his seminal guidebook as a “handsome brown and yellow striped caterpillar.” He recommends looking for them in grass seed heads but adds that he often finds them on the flowers of Goldenrod in the fall.

Perhaps even more handsome is the fluffy Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar, Eucaetes Egle. Like so many other insects that use milkweed as their primary food, this creature expresses the cardiac glycosides found in the latex of the milkweed plants with orange and black coloring.

This photo of at late instar Euchaetes Egle was taken at 12:17pm on October 20, 2007 in Glen Rose, TX. The caterpillar was spotted walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.

This Tussock moth caterpillar was spotted in Glen Rose, Texas in 2007 walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.  Photo by J. Scott Kelley  via Wikipedia.

The adult form of this moth, below, also displays orange and black on its body, as it peeks through the wings to alert predators–WARNING: I don’t taste good!

Dr. Wagner’s description of the interesting larvae: “densely hairy caterpillar with numerous black, orange (or yellow) and white tufts and lashes.”  Yes, “lashes.”

That’s what these hairy protrusions look like–almost colorful bristles on a soft toothbrush extending from the caterpillars body. According to Wagner, the species occurs in Texas and the Southwest, but I have never seen one.  Would love to, though.

Euchaetes_eglePCCA20060825-6935B

Milkweed Tussock Moth, photo by Patrick Coin via Wikipedia.

A third milkweed fan, Cycnia inopinatus, also makes appearances now and then. Kip Kiphart, a trainer for Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) and volunteer at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas, reports that the Cycnia pictured below was found in 2003 by Myrna Langford while checking milkweed on Laurel’s Ranch near Comfort, Texas.  The Cyncia is considered a first for the area.

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Cyncia inopinatus caterpillar. Another milkweed feeder. Photo by Kip Kiphart

Kiphart says Langford brought the caterpillar to a meeting, asking for help in identifying it. “Nobody had any idea what it was. I took it home, took photos, sent them to a number of people and nobody knew what it was,” said Kiphart. Eventually the Cyncia was identified.

It turns into the Unexpected Cyncia moth and feeds exclusively on milkweed. You can see the same orange-and-black expression of other milkweed consumers in the belly of the beast, below. The University of Minnesota, which oversees the MLMP, is seeking citizen science observations and documentation of the moth, which is considered rare and of conservation concern.

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Cyncia adult moth. Photos by Kip Kiphart

Judging from conversations with folks who work and play a lot with milkweed raising caterpillars and butterflies, these other milkweed eaters are not all that common.

Have you seen any of these other milkweed feeders?  Let us know.

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Save the date: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio Oct. 21-22

Mark your calendars, butterfly and pollinator fans. San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at Pearl will take place October 21 – 22 this fall during peak Monarch butterfly migration week.

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The event, organized by the Texas Butterfly Ranch, will celebrate the majesty of the Monarch butterfly migration and the insect pollinators that make one of every three bites of food we eat possible. Also: we hope to honor San Antonio’s unique geographic location on the Monarch flyway, its status as America’s first and only Monarch Champion City (so named by the National Wildlife Federation), the interconnectedness of our world, and our special relationship with Mexico.

With founding sponsorship from the Pearl, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the San Antonio River Authority, HEB, the Rivard Report and Trinity University, Saturday’s events will be FREE and open to the public.

Dr. Cuahetemoc Saenz-Romero --Courtesy photo

Dr. Cuahetemoc Saenz-Romero –Courtesy photo

Festivities kick off Friday evening, October 21, 6 – 9 PM, at the Pearl Studio with a symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch butterfly migration.

Confirmed speakers include Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a PhD in forestry from Michoacán, Mexico. Dr. Sáenz-Romero has proposed moving the forest where the Monarch butterflies roost up the mountain to a higher elevation since changing climate suggests that within approximately 70 years, the forest will not be able to survive increased temperatures.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Catalina Trail on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Also confirmed: Catalina Trail, the woman from Morelia, who at the age of 25 “discovered” the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975. Trail, who now lives in Austin, appears on the August 1976 cover of National Geographic, which announced the news to scientists and the world.

Saturday, October 22, a People’s Pollinator Parade led by Earnabike Coop and San Antonio’s own Pedaling Pollinators butterfly bike troupe will convene and “migrate” through the Pearl complex. Costumes are encouraged.

Hundreds of tagged Monarch butterflies will be released in waves during the Festival. Ongoing demonstrations of How and Why to Tag a Monarch butterfly will take place.

Partner organizations will offer arts, crafts and learning activities for kids of all ages while our friends at the Pearl Farmer’s Market will feature the many insect pollinated foods that make one of every three bites of our food possible.

Pedaling Pollinators

The EarnaBike Coop’s Pedaling Pollinators will lead the People for Pollinator Parade. Courtesy Photo

Restaurants at the Pearl will highlight foods made possible by pollinators while drinking establishments will offer “The Monarch” a special cocktail created especially for the Festival.

Special thanks to our sponsors for making the Monarch butterfly and pollinator festival at Pearl possible.

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SPONSORSHIPS are still available. Check back here for schedules and updates.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Saenz Romero was proposing moving the forest 2,000 feet higher in elevation because climate change suggested the forest would not survive within 20 years.

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Texas Comptroller awards $500K in Monarch research grants to Texas universities

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Tuesday that Texas A&M University and Sam Houston State University will share about $500,000 in research funding to study the Monarch butterfly. That brings the total earmarked for researching America’s favorite

Monarchs Michoacán 2012

Pennies from heaven? Monarch butterflies have generated more than $800K in research grants for state universities in Texas, thanks to the Texas State Comptroller’s Office. Photo by Monika Maeckle

migrating insect by the Comptroller’s office to more than $800,000 in the Lone Star State, just since last June.

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Dr. Robert Coulson, Texas A&M University

Texas A&M will receive $299,998 to evaluate the Monarch’s population status in Texas–specifically, the species’ lifecycle, migratory habits and the possible existence of overwintering populations.  Dr. Robert Coulson, Entomologist and Director of the Knowledge Engineering Laboratory at A & M, will oversee the research, which he said will fuel the species status assessment required by US Fish and Wildlife as it gauges whether or not the Monarch should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sam Houston State will receive $207,510 to research disease and pests that threaten the butterfly. Dr. Jerry Cook, Professor & Associate VicePresident for Research Entomology, will oversee the study.

Grant recipients submitted projects for consideration in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the Comptroller’s office in February.

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

“Funding decisions were made based on recommendations by a non-biased evaluation committee with respect to the criteria detailed in the RFP,” a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office said via email. After reviewing recommendations, the Comptroller’s office decided to contract with the two universities. Names of committee members were not made public.

The upcoming studies hope to build on research done by previous Comptroller’s office grant recipients.

Last June, the University of Texas at San Antonio received $300K to survey milkweeds across the state. In March of this year, Texas A&M – Commerce was awarded $10,141.04 to conduct a pilot study on how fire ants effect the Monarch life cycle.

All the attention is motivated by an August 2014 petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In Texas, the State Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. The Task Force works with landowners, industries, local communities and institutions to assess the economic impact of proposed ESA species listings in Texas. Research surrounding the ramifications of ESA listings are funded by annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature.

“If the butterfly is listed, many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production,” said Hegar in a press release. “This crucial research will identify best practices for the voluntary protection of the species on private lands.”

Will Monarchs be listed as "threatened" under the Endnagered SPecies Act? We'll know in 3 years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy.Photo by Scott Ball

Will Monarchs be listed as “threatened” under the Endamgered Species Act? We’ll know in three years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy. Photo by Scott Ball

The news comes on the heels of a court settlement also announced on July 5 that the USFWS, which rules on all endangered species listings, was awarded three more years to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed. USFWS must issue a decision by June 30, 2019, as well as pay the legal bills of the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety, the two environmental groups that launched the ESA petition in August 2014.

While USFWS was aware the Texas Comptrollers’ office was working to incorporate more universities into the Monarch research grant cycles, a spokesperson said the timing of the announcements was a coincedence. The recent ruling suggests that at least for the next three years, continued research grants will be focused on Monarch butterflies.

“We now know Fish and Wildlife Service will be making its decision whether or not to list the Monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act by June of 2019,” said Dr. Robert Gulley, director of economic growth and endangered species management for the Comptroller’s office. “We believe the research the Comptroller’s office has commissioned, which includes looking at the fifth generation of Monarchs in Texas and the fall migration, will be important in ensuring good science is available when that decision is made.”

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US Fish and Wildlife Service gets three more years to evaluate Monarch butterfly ESA status

A Washington DC Court yesterday awarded the US Fish and Wildlife Service three more years to evaluate whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in a settlement between the government agency and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

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Three more years: That’s how long USFWS will get to determine if this guy should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The settlement also called for reimbursement of reasonable attorneys’ fees for the two environmental groups who initiated the lawsuit.

In August of 2014, CFS, CBD, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and Dr. Lincoln Brower petitioned the Service to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened.” On Dec. 31, 2014, USFWS published a 90-day finding that listing the Monarch might be warranted, and initiated a status review of the species. The Service then failed to rule on the petition by the statutory 12-month deadline.

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The complex, convoluted ESA listing process: we are still caught in the second blue bubble from the top. Courtesy graphic

As a result, in March 2016, CBD and CSF filed a complaint against the Service. Yesterday’s settlement is the Court’s answer to that complaint.

The CBD saw the three-year extension as a positive development.

“In the big picture of slow-cogged bureaucracy, a wait of three years is, relatively speaking, a good outcome,” said Tierra Curry, senior scientist for CBD, adding that many species have had to wait decades for a protection decision.

The scene at Chincua two weeks after the storm. Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

A freak ice and wind storm blew through the Preserve in March, just as Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.  Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

Curry cited threats to the Monarch: milkweed loss, logging in Mexico, the proposed mine in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, and high mortality and habitat damage caused by a freak winter storm in March that swept through the reserve just as many Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.

“I would like to see them gain protection sooner rather than later,” she said.

Read the CBD’s press release.

USFWS viewed the settlement as a pragmatic move.

“The settlement provides the least costly alternative to a court case the Service would have had no grounds to contest,” read a statement issued by USFWS spokesperson. “It commits the Service to submit to the Federal Register a 12-month finding for the Monarch butterfly by June 30, 2019, thereby providing a realistic timeframe for the Service to evaluate carefully whether this species warrants protection under the ESA.”

The USFWS statement also noted that the settlement “does not predetermine the Service’s decision, which must be based solely on what the best available science prescribes.”

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Mexico, Canada and Obama recommit to conserving Monarch butterfly migration

President Barack Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada met in Ottawa, Canada, on Wednesday and reconfirmed their commitment to preserve the Monarch butterfly migration.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada greet President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico upon arrival for the North American Leaders' Summit at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada, June 29, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, President Justin Trudeau of Canada and U.S. President Barack Obama met in Ottawa, Canada this week and talked climate change, clean energy and Monarch butterflies. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Three Amigos summit touches on climate change, terrorists and butterflies,” read the headline in the Toronto Sun.

Amidst discussions of clean energy and climate change cooperation and comments that compared Donald Trump to Hitler, the “Tres Amigos” used the Monarch butterfly migration as an example of the three countries’ inherent connectedness in a time of political isolationism.

President Peña Nieto of Mexico mentioned in remarks that Monarch butterflies “no longer need visas” and used the migrating insects as an example of globalism. “This is a species that, in its pilgrimage, we can see how our countries are intertwined,” said Peña Nieto.

President Obama called Monarchs “spectacular.”

“I love the story of the Monarch butterflies,” he said. “They’re not just any species — they are spectacular and we want to make sure that our children, our grandchildren can see them as well.”

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

President Peña Nieto of Mexico suggested the Monarch migration symbolizes how our three countries are intertwined. Photo by Veronica Prida

By the end of the day, the North American leaders had jointly issued “The North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership Action Plan.”

In a section labeled “Conserve the Monarch butterfly and its habitat,” the North American leaders committed to:

  • Continue to address habitat loss and degradation of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators.
  • Promote sufficient breeding, staging, migration, and overwintering habitat and assure it is made available domestically to support the 2020 Eastern Monarch population target represented by its occupation of six hectares of overwintering habitat in Mexico.
  • Continue collaborating through the Tri-national Monarch Science Partnership to coordinate priority research, monitoring, information sharing, and tools development.
President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! We think Monarchs are “spectacular,” too.  Courtesy photo

The NAFTA Presidents’ reunion came 26 months after they first gathered in Toluca, Mexico and agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

In the two years and four months since that declaration, much has changed.

Here in the United States, President Obama ordered up a National Pollinator Strategy upon returning from that trip. When the 58-page document was released a year later in May of 2015, it created a public focus on the plight of pollinators, the Monarch butterfly migration in particular.  Millions of dollars in research grants, educational programs and government supported initiatives began pouring into the cause of restoring pollinator habitat and educating the public, including the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, which encourages communities along the IH-35 corridor to increase pollinator habitat for Monarchs and other species.

Since the 2014 meeting, the Monarch butterfly population has climbed significantly, tripling this last season. But then climate change dealt the recovery a brutal blow with an unseasonable freeze in March, sweeping through the Oyamel forest where the butterflies roost, killing millions of the migrating butterflies and wrecking the forest “blanket” that ensures their warmth in the winter. Scientists are still assessing the damage. Some projections suggest up to 100 million butterflies were killed.

The scene at Chincua two weeks after the storm. Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

A freak snowstorm in March killed millions of Monarch butterflies this year, just as they were beginning their journey north.Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

Such uncertainty makes a continued North American cooperative effort all the more welcome.

From the Whitehouse press office:

“We reaffirm our commitment to work collaboratively to achieve our long term goal of conserving North America’s Monarch migratory phenomena and to ensure that sufficient habitat is available to support the 2020 target for the eastern Monarch population.

Read the White House press release.

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Texas brakes for butterflies: “Monarch Highway” comes to IH35

A year after President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy with plans to create a pollinator corridor along Interstate Highway 35 (IH35), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) signed an agreement to work with five other states to make the “Monarch Highway” a reality.

Common milkweed

Common milkweed, host plant to the Monarch butterfly, is one of two native milkweeds to be planted along the Monarch Highway in Texas by TxDOT. Photo by Mark Hixson via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

On May 26, Texas joined Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma in signing a Memorandum of Understanding initiated by the Federal Highway Administration. The agreement encourages collaboration among the states to establish best practices and promote public awareness of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators, and commits the states to plant native milkweeds and nectar plants along IH35, the primary flight path for the migrating insects. A Monarch Highway logo and signage are also in development.

“The I-35 Hill County rest areas are going to be planted with pollinator gardens in the next two months,” said Mark Cross, a spokesman for TxDOT.

TxDot has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

TxDOT has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

Cross added that the agency is contracting with Texas A&M University to develop short videos that will run at all four rest areas along the I-35 corridor–in Hill County at Mile Marker 362A, La Salle County at Mile Marker 59, Medina County at Mile Marker 130, and in Bell County at Mile Marker 281. The agency is also working with the Native Plant Society of TexasTexas Master Gardeners and the Gulf Coast Prairie Association.

Literature and handouts promoting pollinators will be created for distribution at all TxDOT rest areas and travel centers, and the agency will convert “several acres” at each designated rest area into pollinator habitat, said Cross, adding, “This will change the landscape from a highly maintained area to a pollinator area.”

Fifteen species of wildflowers comprise the seed mix that TxDOT is planning, said Cross, including Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, and Common milkweed, Aslcepias syriaca. 

Here’s the plant list: Black-eyed Susan, Bluebonnet, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed,  Crimson Clover, Indian Blanket, Lance-Leafed Coreopsis, Mexican Hat, Missouri Primrose,  Prairie Verbena, Purple Coneflower, Annual Phlox, Pink Evening Primrose,  Plains Coreopsis, and Purple Horsemint.

Purple coneflower

Purple coneflower, an excellent nectar plant, will be part of the seed mix for the Monarch Highway rest stops. Photo by Monika Maeckle

TxDOT also is working with South Texas Natives, a project of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, to promote and make available appropriate native seed mixes for Texas.

From its start in Gainesville, Texas at the Red River to its finish in Laredo on the Rio Grande, IH35 in Texas brags almost 590 miles–more than any other state. The Lone Star State also serves as the “Texas Funnel” for the Monarch butterfly migration, since all migrating Monarchs must pass through Texas as they move north in the spring and south in the fall, to and from their ancestral roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico.

In the spring, the butterflies seek their host plant, milkweed, on which to lay their eggs; in the fall, they fuel up on late season nectar plants to power their flight to Mexico, which can exceed 2,500 miles.

Local Native Plant Society of Texas President Joan Miller applauded the news and said that planting of the sites will be incorporated as a service project at NPSOT’s annual symposium in Glen Rose the week of October 14. “The educational value of the installations are extremely important to understanding the use of native plants in landscaping whether it is on public or private property,” said Miller.

As cast in a press release byTxDOT, the Monarch Highway will attract millions of Mexican and Canadian visitors to IH35 each year–but Texas drivers need not worry about more traffic snarls. “They won’t be traveling by road; these visitors will arrive by air as part of a fascinating and fragile migration that happens twice a year.”

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Trinity students continue battle with Johnson grass–Goldenrod winning

Biology students from Trinity University returned to the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week to continue battle with invasive species–specifically, Johnson grass. Four students arrived last Friday to take stock of an ongoing experiment that began last April on the banks of the Llano River and will continue through next year. The goal: figure out which methods are most effective in killing Johnson grass.

Johnson grass experiment

Levanya Hospeti and Molly Lenihan assist Dr. Kelly Lyons  in collecting data for a Trinity University biology experiment. Foreground: Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“We successfully reduced Johnson grass abundance using both grubbing and herbicide,” said biology professor Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and invasive plant expert who organized the experiment for her students. While it’s too soon to say whether grubbing (physically removing the Johnson grass) or herbicide (aquatic-safe glyphosate) is more effective, preliminary data suggest that where Johnson grass was reduced, biodiversity increased.

“We also found that in these rainy seasons, Goldenrod competes well with Johnson grass, albeit to the exclusion of most other species,” said Dr. Lyons.

That’s good news for migrating Monarch butterflies who use the late season bloomer as a nectar stop as they move through the Texas Funnel each fall on their way to Mexico.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, competes will with Johnson grass and shields Swamp milkweed from harsh sun and flooding. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The project began last April as part of Trinity University’s ongoing research funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation. Last spring, a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity. Students established four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and applied  different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhackjng, and herbicides, in various combinations.

On this visit, Levanya Hospeti, Molly Lenihan, Austin Philippe and Olivia Roybal joined Dr. Lyons to collect data and plant plugs of native Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, a boisterous grower that Dr. Lyons believes can compete heftily with the rambunctious Johnson grass. Students planted 20 Eastern gamamgrass plugs and will continue monitoring the site over the course of the next year.

EEG

Olivia Roybel watches as Austin Phillipe drills a hole to plant Eastern gamagrass plugs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Invasives cites Johnson grass as one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world. It arrived from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop–even though when stressed, it can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock. The super aggressive grass spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

monarchsonfrostweed

Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years we’ve enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frosted on the Llano in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white late season nectar sources, respectively, serve as important fuel and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures. But ever since a road project disrupted our stream bank and hauled in uninvited Johnson grass, we’ve been fighting the battle to win back our native nectar plants.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Lyons thinks that the Goldenrod and Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, are up to the task.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

So the battle continues.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass. It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper. It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, host plant to Monarch butterflies. Tall mounds of Eastern gamagrass already occur naturally all along the Llano, providing shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost. It’s equally important to manage and combat the advances of invasive species that infect our wildscapes. Johnson grass is just one interloper. Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.

 

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Coming soon? Grupo Mexico copper mine in heart of Monarch butterfly roosting sites

While the U.S. channels millions of dollars into research, citizen science outreach, and public education on the importance of the Monarch butterfly migration, Mexico is considering the approval of permits that would allow its largest mining company with the country’s worst environmental record to reopen a copper mine in the heart of the Monarchs’ ancestral roosting sites.

Roosting sites

What will happen to the roosting sites if copper mining returns to Angangueo?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Grupo Mexico, which trades on the Mexican Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol GMEXICOB and has a market cap of $317 billion, claims that a mine it operated until 1992 in Angangueo, Michoacán, technically never closed, and thus should be allowed to reopen, despite protections put in place for the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The reserve was inscribed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2008.

Grupo Mexico touts itself on the company’s website as a “leader in low-cost production” and has a deserved reputation for lax ecological controls.  The company was responsible for the worst mining accident in Mexican history.

In August of 2014, the holding company’s Buenavista copper mine in Sonora released 10 million gallons of copper sulfate acid and other heavy metals into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers, contaminating the water supply of 24,000 people along the U.S. border with Arizona. Mexico’s Minister of Environment Juan José Guerra called the incident the “worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico.” Grupo Mexico attributed the accident to heavy rains.

Grupo Mexico

Grupo Mexico touts its low cost leadership on its website. Graphic via gmexico.com the worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico,” said Grupo Mexico blamed the accident on heavy rains.

The accident was so severe that for the first time in Mexican history, PROFEPA, the country’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, was forced by community outrage to file a legal complaint against the mining company, holding it financially responsible for the clean-up. Grupo Mexico was forced to create a $150 million trust to address the environmental impacts.

A September 2014 dispatch in El Financiero, Mexico’s leading business and financial news daily, cited a report from a special Mexican Congressional investigation into the Buenavista incident. The conclusion: “Grupo Mexico and its affiliate Buenavista del Cobre mine, far from being a socially responsible enterprise respectful of the environment and in solidarity with the local population, have put at risk human life, the environment and the economic development of the region.”

The above catastrophe wasn’t the only time Grupo Mexico unleashed a mining disaster. Back in 2006, an explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila killed 65 miners. After striking 14 times because of methane leaks and generally unsafe working conditions, the unionized miners were blown to bits in the blast. In addition to the significant loss of life, serious environmental impacts resulted–air and water pollution, soil contamination, erosion, deforestation and more.

This incident, along with the Buenavista disaster and a corporate history of union busting and low-cost mining, have earned Grupo Mexico a reputation as “one of the country’s most irresponsible mining companies,” according to the Transborder Project in Washington, DC.

Copper mining at the Monarch roosting sites?

Will copper mining come to the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico? Photo by Carol Stoker, NASA, Wikipedia

The turn of events is literally unbelievable given that a little over two years ago Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto stood with President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and pledged to support the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration.

In February 2014, shortly after scientists announced the Monarch butterfly population had dropped precipitously to historic lows of about 35 million butterflies from highs of 450 million in years’ past, the three heads of state gathered in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the roosting sites. With great fanfare, los trés amigos” committed to do what they could to save the Monarch butterfly migration.

“We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the Monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” President Enrique Peńa Nieto said at the end of the summit. The leaders agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

tresamigos

President Barack Obama President Enrique Pen–a Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to help save the Monarch butterfly migration back in 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

So, how does allowing a company with one of the worst environmental records in Mexican history to reopen a copper mine in the heart of the Monarch Butterfly Biopreserve move us toward that goal?

“In México, in governmental affairs linked to big companies, corruption has no limits,” said one Mexican scientist, who, like several Mexican residents interviewed, asked to remain nameless for fear of reprisals.  Another source said he would like to speak out, but wouldn’t because he had neither the “stature nor protection” to do so.

The move by Grupo Mexico to reopen the mine has been underway for years, but came into U.S. focus most recently when Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin addressed the subject in a thoughtful April 29 New York Times opinion piece headlined “A Mine vs. a Million Monarchs.”  The article lays out the complex issues facing the community of Angangueo as they struggle for economic stability building a nascent ecotourism economy in the middle of the Mexican mountains.

Fagin’s piece was shared profusely on the DPLEX list, an email listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados, from academics to novices, as well as other online outlets. The exposure provoked a petition by the Endangered Species Coalition, Tell the Mexican Government to Reject Mining in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. 

Sign the petition today.

Click on the link and sign the petition today.

“It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that tags thousands of migrating Monarch butterflies each fall, by phone this week. He added that he’d heard that many in the Mexican government oppose the mine.

“There are lots of declarations by people who say that they’re not going to let certain things happen– and then they do happen.”  Taylor encouraged a united front in opposition to the reopening of the mine.

Grupo Mexico did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Sign the petition here.
 

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