About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state. Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.
Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.
Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction: “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”
And it was. Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.
The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall. Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.
About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November. The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice. Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.
“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once. She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”
The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed. The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.
Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years. Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants. “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”
The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices. For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed? How does milkweed respond to burning? Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation. Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.
“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following Dr. Bush. Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas. Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”
Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.
At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not. Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly, she said.
Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.
Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.) Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.
For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive. Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.
Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.
This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch. Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents? With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.
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