Q & A: Dr. Anurag Agrawal challenges Monarch butterfly conservation conventional wisdom

Dr. Anurag Agrawal has a bit of a contrarian streak. Named the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award earlier this year, he was lauded for “opening up new research themes” and continuing “to push the envelope using novel approaches” to science, teaching and building community.

Anurag Agrawal by Frank DiMeo

Dr. Anurag Agrawal –PHoto by Frank DiMeo

Take a paper Agrawal and a team of researchers published in April, for example. Titled “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline,” Agrawal dared to suggest that the intense focus on milkweed in Monarch butterfly restoration efforts might be misplaced. Solutions that address habitat fragmentation and increasing the availability of late season nectar plants should receive more attention, he proposed.

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Agrawal currently serves as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. He’s married to fellow Cornell professor Dr. Jennifer Thaler, an insect ecologist, and the couple have two children, Anna and Jasper. Agrawal attributes his initial interest in science and plants to his mother’s intense love of vegetable gardening.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase populations or save them from demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video released in conjunction with the paper.

The paper rocked the “Monarchy” as he calls the the sceintific and citizen science communities devoted to the migrating insects in a soon-to-be published book, Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. The book will be available in April 2017. If all 296 pages are as readable and interesting as the first chapter, which you can read for free at the Princeton University Press website, Agrawal will have a butterfly bestseller on his hands.

Milkweed and Monarchs:

Milkweed and Monarchs, available in April 2017.  Dr. Anurag Agrawal’s soon-to-be-published book, details how the Monarch and milkweed plants have coevolved. –Courtesy photo

Agrawal has called the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very gnarly problem,”  and consistently gives kudos to citizen scientists for contributing to our understanding of them. He often cites a need to “get the science right.”

That sounds like an honorable goal. Let’s hear more from Agrawal, below.

Q: Did you get a lot of flack for your contrarian view on the priority placed on milkweed in Monarch restoration efforts?

Agrawal: I did get a lot of flack.  And I would say that it was pretty interesting, too, because a substantial amount of the flack was off-the-record.

We had sent the manuscript to several Monarch researchers and many of their comments substantially improved the study. But there was a lot of pushback from very prominent research before we got it published. They were asking, ‘Do you want to be the person that derails Monarch conservation? You will appear to be in bed with Monsanto.’

It’s nice to think about science as a fact-based enterprise, but I was really surprised at the extent to which there was a strong agenda and some folks were not open to alternate interpretations of the data and the conventional wisdom.

I was anxious to see what would happen once the paper was published. And I was glad to see that when some of the senior Monarch researchers were asked, they said they didn’t agree–but they were far less bold in their public disagreement or criticism of the work.

My hope is that the study contributes a little to a change in perspective. Any good scientist would agree there are many factors and many causes that contribute to Monarch decline and getting the science right is critical to having a positive impact.

Q: Is it not of the evolutionary cycle for creatures to STOP migrating if they can secure the food and reproductive resources they need locally?

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Predators like the Tachinid fly serve the evolutionary purpose of keeping the Monarch population in check. Here, Tachinid larvae next to dead Monarch caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal: For Monarchs, it’s known that the ancestral populations are migratory but that there are nonmigratory populations in Florida, Spain, Hawaii and elsewhere. Some new populations will evolve to be non-migratory, including some non-migratory populations in Mexico.

Scientists believe that migration evolves to take advantage of a large un-utilized resource in some seasons. For example, movement north from Mexico and the southern U.S. in spring evolved to take advantage of abundant milkweeds in the Midewest and Northeastern USA.

Migration is certainly an evolvable trait. In many of the articles I’ve read, almost everyone agrees Monarchs are not under any threat to go extinct; but the migratory phenomenon, one of the most spectacular in the world, may be at risk of going extinct.

Q: Is it arrogant of us to work to perpetuate the Monarch migration for the sake of our joy and fascination of witnessing the natural spectacle? What would the butterflies think if they had the option to reproduce and feed locally rather than migrate thousands of miles?

You’ve asked a really good question: is it arrogant for us to expect the migration to continue forever? The reason people worry about its loss is that we have to ask, to what extent is that loss driven by human consumption of the planet?

The world is changing on its own, organisms are evolved creatures and go extinct all the time; the pace of that extinction is much much more rapid in recent years than in the pre-industrial past. It has been likened to the pace of mass extinctions caused by events like asteroids hitting the planet. If that’s the case, and we have some control over it, then my answer is quite different than if the decline is due to “natural causes.”

Q. What is your view on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and advice from many scientists to chop it down in the late summer and early fall? What about other milkweeds that continue growing through the season in warm climates?

Agrawal:  We just don’t really know. That hits on a key issue: what causes the break in reproductive cycle–is it the presence of milkweed flowers in general, or is it something specific to Tropical milkweed?

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. To plant it or not is not a simple question. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We don’t know all the reproductive cues that affect Monarchs. Scientists discouraging “non-native” milkweeds are sticking with the precautionary principle–i.e., natives are expected to keep monarchs on track to continue their cycle.

What is a gardener to do?  Plant native milkweeds.

Habitat protection is a good thing. But there are a lot of unknowns. During the southern migration we’re just starting to get some sense of what happens in Texas–but we have very little information about what happens for the last 800 miles. That last third in Northern Mexico is when they’re struggling with wing wear, with lack of fuel (nectar), and we have very little data on that leg of the journey.

Q. Do you think that the rearing and release of Monarchs by citizen scientists and enthusiasts is harmful or helpful to the cause?

Agrawal:  It’s not something I have a scientific opinion on. It’s a double-edged sword in some ways… I’m very pro public engagement with the natural world, but I’m personally not that fond of the rear-and-release for the purpose of “helping” a species. It hints of a little bit of arrogance. We’ve created some problems and now we’re going to solve it by just raising them to make up the difference?! That’s not how nature works.

What makes people think that rearing them in cages is going to increase the abundance of the species? Look at the Bald Eagle. It wasn’t rearing them in captivity that saved them; it was improving habitat, understanding where they want to nest that made the difference.

We all desperately want to help, but I’m not sure that getting in the drivers’ seat is the most sensible approach. I would argue from the perspective of environmental education it makes a lot of sense–to be in Nature, to experience it, it’s something we can do.

Q. Are you aware of the recent Monarch zones efforts by folks in Iowa whereby volunteers raise and release Monarchs using an outdoor biotent natural rearing protocol? Is that any different, better or worse than enthusiasts or commercial breeders raising and releasing butterflies?

Agrawal:  Natural is often better. There’s pretty strong evidence that suggests exposure to ultraviolet light kills off some of the parasites and that the natural cues of sunlight will increase the probability of the Monarchs migrating. But in Nature, more than 90% don’t survive!

It’s worrisome to take natural filters out of the life cycle that natural predation provides.
When a seedling in a forest makes it to be an adult tree it’s a one-in-a-million event. It’s the one individual in the snowstorm of acorns that wasn’t eaten by squirrels at the right place at the right time that makes it.

The life of a Monarch is the same, in a way. Of those 400 million butterflies in Mexico, only a fraction made it. For the population to be stable, there’s a biological filtration process that creates resistance to predators. Mass rearing removes that filter.

Q. What is the one most important thing gardeners, citizen scientists and regular folks can do to help pollinators and Monarchs?

Agrawal:  Something they can do is what they don’t do: don’t spray pesticides around their homes. Having a few more weeds around allows some diversity there, which is likely to protect the animals that visit those plants.

The home gardening movement has all kinds of benefits–reduce lawn and reduce consumption.

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Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium tackles tough questions

“Each one is a hole in the sky through which we can get a glimpse of heaven”.

–Mississippi wildlife artist Walter Anderson

That was how moderator Dan Goodgame launched our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium October 21 at the Pearl Studio.

Monarch cat on swamp

The “new normal”?  Monarch butterflies continued to reproduce late into the season this year as warm temperatures caused many to break their diapause and lay eggs rather than migrate. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The 89-minute discussion was just one of three events that made San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival–three-days of art, science and celebration commemorating our favorite migrating insect, Danaus plexipus–such a success last month.

We share the video of that symposium in its entirety today, thanks to the generous support of the John and Florence Newman Foundation, a San Antonio foundation that invests in progressive initiatives in San Antonio and beyond.newman-logo

Questions raised in the symposium discussion are timely given the recent election and the long, late extremely unusual migration of Monarchs this season. As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are STILL seeing Monarch butterflies in our gardens and wildscapes; policy questions about how President-elect Trump will address climate change and pollinator advocacy hang in the balance.

The symposium brought together an equal number of scientists and citizen scientists representing all three countries touched by the Monarchs’ North American travels to a sold-out house.

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On the panel: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, rock star climate change expert from Texas Tech University. Born in Canada, Hayhoe “grew up with Monarchs” and had just returned from a visit to the White House where Leonardo DiCaprio asked her for her autograph.

 

 

Cathy Downs, from Comfort, Texas, works as an education cathyoutreach specialist  for Monarch Watch.

 

 

 

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz RomeroMexican forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, of Michoacán, had been visiting Trinity University as a guest professor in ecological sciences; Dr. Saenz Romero studies the Oyamel forest where the Monarchs roost each winter.

 

 

maeckleheadshotMonika Maeckle, of the Texas Butterfly Ranch. That’s me. I was on the panel, but we didn’t plan it that way. At the last minute, our good friend Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975, was unable to attend because of a medical condition. I took her place.

The lively discussion touched on everything from the pros and cons of Tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica, to whether or not “assisted migration,” or moving the Oyamel forest in Mexico where the Monarchs roost 2,000 feet higher in elevation to save it from climate change constitutes “interfering with nature.” Mitchell Hagney of the Rivard Report wrote a great wrap-up of the symposium the day after it happened.

At almost 90 minutes, the video may be a bit long for some. Thus, I have noted what I found to be some of the more interesting points with time stamps so those in a rush can skip to the parts that most interest them.

Two videos are also embedded in this one. Our butterfly friendly San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, whose signature on the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge made San Antonio the first Monarch Champion City in the country, recorded a welcome video for the Festival since she was unable to join us because of a previous commitment. That two-minute video can be viewed at minute 2:17, or you can watch it at the bottom of this post.

Our media partners, the Rivard Report, also made a lovely video with footage taken along the Llano River during peak migration to illustrate a story covering the Festival. That video can be viewed at 4:22.

If you want to skip all that and go straight to the discussion, fast forward to 7:30. Other notes/highlights are noted below.

*                   *                 *                *                       *               *               *

2:17 Mayor Taylor’s Welcome Video. “I can’t think of a better symbol of the bonds we share as people and as nations than the Monarch Butterfly,” says San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor.

4:22 Rivard Report video.

7:30 Moderator Dan Goodgame introduces panelists.

10:25 Video “Get Well Card” for Catalina Trail, from audience.

11:27 Maeckle explains how she came to know Catalina Trail.

16:01 Cathy Downs offers a state-of-the-union of the Monarch butterfly population.

19:27 Dr. Hayhoe discusses how climate change works as a “threat multiplier” to the Monarch butterfly migration and many other issues.

21:06 Dr. Saenz Romero explains how the unique ecosystem of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico serves as a blanket for the Monarchs’ in the winter, raising the temperature up to 10 degrees under the forest canopy, keeping the Monarchs from freezing.

oyamel drought

Dr. Saenz Romero discussed how drought and extreme weather has been tough on the Oyamel trees. They can’t get enough water from the soil during the dry season to keep the tree tops from dying. Photo by Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero

28:35 Dr. Saenz Romero introduces the “radical” idea of moving the forest.   “I may be crucified by some ecologists,” he says.

“So when you plant Oyamel at higher altitudes than it exists today, we have to move the population higher. Then we have to hope, some say pray, that the Monarchs will change the location of their overwintering sites. We don’t know if it will happen. As you know, the generation that got to Mexico had never been to Mexico.”

“By 2090 there will not be a single square kilometer of climate that is good for the trees where the Monarchs go for over wintering.” –Dr. Saenz Romero

32:30 Dr. Saenz Romero bemoans the challenges of moving the forest higher, noting that even though “there’s no soil” above the tree line, that  has not stopped avocado growers from trucking in soil to Michoacán to grow avocados “for your Superbowl.”

35:05 Goodgame poses the question: will the butterflies follow the forest up the mountain if the Oyamel forest is moved? Downs tackles the question.

36:43 Hayhoe chimes in that indeed the butterflies could adapt—if they have time, “So after the last ice age there was a huge warming of the planet. That warming happened over 10-50 times longer than what we are seeing today.”

“If the climate changes more slowly, will the butterflies adapt? I think the answer is, yes. Without a doubt. I think the question really is: can they adapt this quickly without help? And it isn’t just the butterflies.”–Dr. Hayhoe

39:30 Cathy Downs suggests what we can do to mitigate the damage of climate change, including planting milkweeds and late season nectar plants.

43:30 Downs and Maeckle discuss the odd, late Monarch migration this fall and how Monarchs are more frequently breeding this season. “They aren’t supposed to do that, they aren’t reading the book!” says Downs. “They are supposed to be in diapause.”

44:00 Maeckle brings up the Tropical milkweed debate—the question of what are native plants in the Monarch world. “If it’s ok to move a forest out of its native zone, why not a host plant?”

45:39 Saenz attempts to answer the question.

48:19 Dr. Hayhoe offers ideas about how to talk about climate change. “The reason why we care about a changing climate is because it takes something that we already care about, that we’re already concerned about, and it puts that extra straw on the camel’s back.” she says. “So in the case of the butterflies, there are already many reasons to be concerned.”

“What is climate change doing to the butterflies?” It’s doing a few different things. It is actually changing their phenology—what does that mean? It means when they breed and when they migrate. We just heard first-hand witnesses of how things are changing, and they’re changing because the warm temperatures are throwing off the butterflies’ internal calendars.” –Dr. Hayhoe

50:50 Hayhoe offers that we need to build resilience and wean ourselves from fossil fuels. She expresses hopefulness tied to the Paris Climate Change Treaty.

54:32 Saenz answers Goodgame’s question about how ecotourism is effecting the roosting sites—hurting or helping?

“Tourism is very positive at overwintering sites, because there is a very severe restriction to cut trees today, because it’s a biosphere reserve in the core area, so nearly the only income alternative to cut trees is to have ecotourism.”–Dr. Saenz Romero

56:10 Saenz Romero expresses pessimism about the voluntary enforcement of the Paris Climate Treaty, as Mexico begins oil drilling in the ocean and continues to import oil from Australia.

58:44 Goodgame introduces the issue of the possible copper mine at the Monarch roosting sites in Mexico.

1:01:15 Question from the audience: Should the mastodons still be alive today?

1:03:55 Goodgame follows up: Is the issue that the butterfly will go extinct, or that it just stops migrating?

Maeckle answers with a question: why do insects migrate? For shelter, for host plant, to reproduce. And if the Monarch butterfly can have local milkweed and mates here in San Antonio or Houston or Florida, why should they migrate? Why would they migrate?

“Is it a vanity for us as human beings for us to expect this insect to make that journey so we can be marveled, so we can appreciate it? And what would the butterfly say if we could interview the butterfly?”–Maeckle

1:05:52 Downs debates the pros and cons of migratory vs. local Monarch butterfly populations. “Personally, I think it’s important and I’m all for the vanity of that.”

1:13:56 What are the impacts of pesticide use?

1:16:08 Is Tropical milkweed good or not?

1:19.08 Do the two or three milkweeds in my yard make a difference?

1:19:58 Are we preventing adaptation by interfering with nature?

1:20:54 What other species of trees are part of the forests where the Monarchs roost? What is the reforestation plan for the Oyamel forest?

1:23:00 What is the forest going to look like in 50 years? And is there a possibility that the Monarchs would roost there on other species?

1:26:46 How will climate change impact predation pressure on Monarchs?

thanks

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Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at TribuneFest: “Hopelessness is hopeless”

Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of the foremost experts in the world on climate change, appeared at the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend in a one-on-one interview with Neena Satija,  the news organization’s environmental and investigative reporter.

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Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe will join us at our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium in San Antonio October 21 -Photo by Artie LImmer, Texas Tech University

Since Dr. Hayhoe will be joining us at our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival October 20 -22 as a speaker at our climate change symposium, I thought I’d sit in on the session to get a preview of what we might hear from her next month. Tickets available here.

Hayhoe did not disappoint. But first, a bit of background.

Born in Ontario, Canada, she “grew up with Monarch butterflies,” she told me after her appearance. She was raised as an evangelical Christian and climate skeptic.

butterflyfest_300x600Now, as an atmospheric scientist, Hayhoe serves as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University with a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois. She devotes herself to developing and applying climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. As a lead author for the Second and Third U.S. National Climate Assessments, she has conducted climate impact studies for a broad cross-section of organizations, cities and regions, from Boston to Texas to California.

“I am also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, where we bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders to provide relevant, state-of-the-art information on how climate change will affect our lives,” Hayhoe states on her website.

This bridge building becomes most interesting when Hayhoe taps into her identity as an evangelical Christian married to a pastor–not the typical profile of a climate change activist. She and her husband Andrew Farley, a professor of applied linguistics and best-selling author, wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, a book that untangles the complex science of climate change while tackling long-held misconceptions.

This defying of the stereotype gives Hayhoe a unique ability to talk about climate change in a way people can hear and understand.

Satija Hayhoe

Neena Satija interviews Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at the Texas Tribune Festival. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Referring to the “earth’s fever,” on Saturday at Calhoun Hall on the University of Texas at Austin campus, she pointed out how the values that drive people to do things big and small to combat client change are the same values upon which every major religion in the world are founded–taking responsibility, caring about the future our children will face, and caring for the poor, for example.

“Hopelessness as a policy is hopeless,” Hayhoe said. “Hope is what keeps us going as humans.”

She added that the poor and the vulnerable are the human populations most effected by climate change. Native Americans in Alaska and Louisiana have been displaced and are the first climate change refugees “because their land is sinking,” into the rising oceans, she said.

climate change hayhoe book

Hayhoe’s book, coauhored with her husband Dr. Andrew Farley, unravels misconceptions about climate change. Courtesy photo

But Hayhoe’s primary message was one of hope. She cited the progress and actions cities are taking across the country to fight climate change–planting more trees, reducing pavement, concrete and other impervious cover, creating green roofs to help reduce temperatures in urban heat islands.

She praised British Colombia’s carbon fee dividend program–whereby companies and individuals charge a fee for greenhouse gas emissions, which are then refunded to taxpayers as a dividend. “China’s 2015 coal emissions dropped for the first time. They have more wind and solar than anyone,” she said.

She encouraged those advocating to combat climate change to “leave the science behind” and talk about something that touches people’s hearts.

“To talk to people about climate change, don’t start with the science, talk about something that is personal to them,” said Hayhoe. “We must be able to connect where our heart is, not just where our head is.”

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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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Scientists try to assess Monarch butterfly mortality after Mexican freeze

Scientists have been scrambling  to assess the mortality of the roosting Monarch butterfly population in Michoacán, Mexico, following a freak March 11 winter snowstorm that dropped temperatures to sub freezing and included wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour in the butterflies’ ancestral roosting sites.  For now, the estimates of how much of the migrating Monarch butterfly population perished are at best an educated guess.

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

The scene at Chincua the day after the storm.   Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

 

“I have no new information. We are ‘in limbo,’” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science organization based at the University of Kansas that tags the butterflies each fall to track their migration.

Dr. Lincoln Brower has been working long distance from his home in Sweet Briar, Virginia, with a team of scientists on the ground in the 10,000-foot-tall plus mountains northwest of Mexico City where the butterflies roost each fall.  They’ve been gathering data, reviewing climatology information, making observations, and reviewing photos and historical accounts of a previous freeze in 2002.

“It’s been difficult and there are conflicting reports as you know,” said Dr. Brower via email, referring to Mexican tourism officials downplaying the severity of the situation. Soon after news of the storm broke, Mexican officials claimed that only 3% of the butterflies had been affected–about 1.5 million of the estimated 200 million roosting.

“The climate data we have suggest about 50% mortality in Chincua but observations suggest that Rosario was hit harder,” said Brower, referring to the El Rosario sanctuary, the preserve most often visited by tourists. The 50% number would mean 100 million butterflies took the hit–which still leaves us up over last year, just a disappointing and devastating turn of events, if true.

El Rosario Preserve in Michoacán. Photo by Monika Maeckle

El Rosario Preserve in Michoacán. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Cuatémoc Sáenz Romero, a forester who studies the Oyamel forest and is promoting an initiative to move it higher in elevation to save it from climate change, thus guaranteeing the Monarchs a future winter roost, said he visited the sanctuaries two weeks after the storm. “Except for some trees fallen, I did not see dramatic damages,” he said.

Many of us are wondering how many of the butterflies had already left the colony when the storm hit on March 11.  Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs bust off the Oyamel trees in response to warmer temperatures and begin their journey north.  We start to see them moving into South Texas as they search for milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs in the multi-generation migration. Some Monarchs have definitely made it to San Antonio and South Texas as we are witnessing and hearing about first-of-season sightings and finding eggs on local milkweeds.

monarch eggs on milkweed

Who’s got Monarch eggs? We do in San Antonio. At least SOME Monarchs escaped the storm. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The question of how many Monarchs departed before the storm hit may be rhetorical, according to one scientist.

“Perhaps that doesn’t even matter given how widespread this storm was,” said Monarch and migration scholar Dr. Tyler Flockhart of the University of Guelph in Ontario.  Flockhart said that according to weather data, the winds were so strong that temperatures inside and outside the forest were pretty much the same, suggesting the “butterflies would have been exposed to very cold temperatures.”

Scientists consider the forest canopy as an insulation blanket.  As climate change and illegal logging conspire to undermine the forest in the roosting preserves, the unique ecosystem of moisture, temperature and protection from the elements becomes threatened.   Several scientists expressed more concern about the huge trees that had been taken by the storm than the mortality of the butterflies, since it will be extremely challenging to recreate the forest canopy in the short-term.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership and released in the journal Scientific Reports March 21 found that the Monarch migration has an 11 to 57 percent chance of facing “quasi-extinction” in the next 20 years.

Dr. John Pleasants, an Iowa State University researcher who participated in the study, defined quasi-extinction to mean that not enough individual Monarch butterflies would exist to continue their migratory patterns.  The migration would collapse and the population would likely not recover.  That doesn’t mean there will no longer be Monarch butterflies;  it does suggest the phenomenon of the unique Monarch butterfly migration would cease to exist if the population falls to even more perilous levels.

We should have more definitive information in the next few weeks as the scientists review the collected data.  Stay tuned and keep those fingers crossed.

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Guidance on milkweed management confuses butterfly gardeners

Confusion reigns for gardeners and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts trying to “do the right thing” managing their late season milkweed, the host plant of Monarch butterflies.

monarch laying eggs on swamp milkweed

Monarch laying eggs on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio November 15, 2015. Photo by Monika Mae

For the last few years, scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia as well as renown Monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower have recommended slashing Tropical milkweed, Aslcepias curassavica, to the ground late in the season.  Studies suggest that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known in Monarch butterfly circles as OE.

Until recently, Tropical milkweed, technically nonnative, has been the only host plant available for butterfly gardeners hoping to lure the migrating butterflies to their yards.  The reliable bloomer will thrive year-round in warmer and coastal climates, especially in Texas and Florida.  Scientists believe this year-round availability creates a hotbed of nasty OE spores and spreads the disease.  Its presence can also encourage Monarch butterflies to break their diapause–or temporarily suspended non reproductive state–and lay eggs, thus unable to complete their migration to Mexico.

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

But now, for the first time ever, native milkweeds are more available.  And judging from the government funding pouring in to milkweed cultivation and the valiant Monarch butterfly habitat conservation effort, even MORE milkweeds will be coming to market soon.  Gardeners will soon have choices beyond Tropical milkweed.

“Plant only species of milkweed that are native to your region, whenever possible.”

That’s what the Monarch Joint Venture OE Fact sheet advises pollinator gardeners like me and you.

We did that.  And like good stewards, we’ve been cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground late in the season.

But guess what?  Those native milkweeds, which have recently become available because of all the attention on Monarch habitat restoration, are thriving late in the season, too.

Egg on Texana

Egg found on Texana milkweed, Aslcepias texana, 11/19/2015. Not sure if it’s a Queen or monarch (and it hasn’t hatched yet.)  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my yard right now, for example, I have

  • Asclepias texana, Texana milkweed
  • Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed
  • Aslepias curassavica Tropical milkweed
  • Aslcepias tuberosa Butterfly weed
  • Asclepias oenotheroides, Zizotes milkweed
  • Matelea reticulata, Pearl Milkweed vine.

I sought out these various milkweeds at native plant sales, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, from our family’s Llano River ranch.  I also traded seeds with other pollinator fans, friends and butterfly breeders. At this moment, all but those I’ve cut back (tuberosa and curassavica) still flaunt green foliage, days before Thanksgiving.

Should I cut these native milkweeds to the ground as well?

The theory of OE spores building up over the season, possibly infecting migrating Monarchs would seem to hold true for other milkweeds available late in the year, not just Tropical milkweed.

Right?

“You’re right that it’s less about the plant itself and more about the seasonality of the plant,” wrote Satterfield via email.  “Any plant that grows 365 days a year in the southern U.S. and supports Monarchs year-round could lead to high levels of disease, as we understand it.”

Swamp milkweed seed pod

Drawback to cutting back native milkweeds: we then can’t harvest the seedpods. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“My personal leaning is that if the species are native, they don’t need to be cut back on a regular basis,” said Dr. Altizer via email.  “Any natives that routinely remain in lush green foliage into the fall and winter are likely going to be rare species, or it will be a rare year when this happens, whereas with the Tropical milkweed, these commonly remain in green foliage until they are hit by a hard frost or cut back.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower, always the purist, suggests even cutting late season nectar plants back–if they are growing in close proximity to Tropical milkweed.

“I have given some thought to your question of whether nectar sources might accumulate OE spores,” wrote Dr. Brower via email.  “I think the answer to this is one of probability and proximity to curassavica [Tropical milkweed]. I think that nectar sources are so diverse and abundant in the natural environment that the probability of Monarchs infecting the plants with spores is very small. …unless the nectar plant is growing adjacent to curassavica. Again, yank it out.”

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, a longtime Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer said she is no longer going to advise folks to cut back their Tropical milkweed. “If milkweed is on the ground late in the season, I don’t see why it makes any difference what species it is,” said Kennedy, a former science teacher. “Grow up kids, and make your own decisions.”

One drawback to cutting milkweeds back late in the season is that we then are unable to harvest the seeds. I cut back a patch of Swamp milkweed in August as it was riddled with aphids and gangly.  The plants failed to produce any more flowers; thus, no seeds have been harvested from that patch to propagate future native milkweeds.

Satterfield insisted that the scientists’ statements are “still correct and not mutually exclusive.”

Swamp milkweed in the "wild" of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed in the “wild” of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Our research suggests that milkweeds that support Monarch breeding year-round in the U.S. could put Monarchs at higher risk of disease. The milkweeds enabling these non-migratory Monarchs are exotic species, like Tropical milkweed and Family Jewels milkweed. We are not aware of any native species supporting large numbers of Monarch caterpillars during the winter in the Gulf states. So, we do not have any scientific support right now that says we should cut back native milkweeds.”

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Late season Monarch butterflies create gardening quandary

It’s mid November and Monarch butterflies continue to visit my San Antonio pollinator garden.  Lighting on Cowpen daisy, Duranta, Gregg’s Purple mist flower and several kinds of milkweed, the butterflies have extended their visits long past their usual late October stay.

Monarch on duranta

Nov. 12,. 2015: Monarchs still visiting my San Antonio garden, this one on Duranta. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we don’t sometimes have Monarchs visiting this late in the season. We do.  In fact, we’ve had many questions from folks up north about what to do with late hatching Monarchs when the weather turns cold. A previous post addresses that. But I don’t ever recall having this many Monarch butterflies this late, and so consistently.

“Yesterday, I saw hundreds of Monarchs in Austin,” wrote John Barr of Native Cottage Gardens in Austin on November 1 in a post to the DPLEX list, the old school email listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly enthusiasts.  ” I saw more Monarchs in 30 minutes than I’ve seen all year. Bright, fresh, long-winged migrating Monarchs of both sexes.”

Monarchs were even spotted recently as far north as Lake Erie, according to Darlene Burgess of Point Pelee, Leamington, Ontario. “There are still Monarchs being seen in Ontario on Lake Erie’s north shore. This week’s warm temps up to 70° should get them south across the lake,” she wrote November 2 on the DPLEX list.

lateseasonblooms

Late season blooms continue to attract Monarchs and other pollinators to my urban San Antonio garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Natural Gardener in Austin, which stocks several kinds of native milkweeds, said they’ve had a steady stream of Monarchs visiting as well. “They LOVE the Duranta,” said Curt Alston, buyer for the organic nursery. Alston added that he has plenty of caterpillars and chyrsalises on the native milkweeds, and that adult Monarchs are still breezing through the aisles.

What gives?

Climate change.  September 2015 was the hottest month in recorded history.  October ranked the fourth hottest.  Overall, 2015 is likely to be the hottest year ever, says the New York Times.

Warmer temps mean extended growing seasons.  Plants that typically wouldn’t thrive when fall arrives will continue to grow and bloom, creating more nectar for migrating Monarchs, and in some cases, host plant.

Increased temperatures also mean that Monarch butterflies will likely break their diapause–that is, their asexual state of resisting reproductive activities so as to conserve energy for migrating to Mexico.   Once Monarchs reproduce, they don’t migrate.

winter breeding map

Breaking diapause increases the chances of more year-round Monarch butterfly colonies. Map via Monarch Joint Venture

“We’ve got to get used to the late Octobers and Novembers as part of our future,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist tagging program operated by the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

Taylor predicts that a larger proportion of these late Monarchs will be unable to maintain their diapause and become reproductive.  “Their hormones work on the basis of temperature.  It’s very delicate and complicated,” he said via phone.  “The warmer it is, the more likely it is the Monarch will not be able to maintain a diapause.”

Hmm.  So where does that leave butterfly gardeners?  Should we encourage egg laying with native or clean Tropical milkweed, or just let all those good eggs go to waste?

curassavica

Tropical milkweed: cut it to the ground in the fall to prevent build-up of OE spores. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Research from scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer out of the University of Georgia indicates that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known as OE in Monarch butterfly circles.  Since OE spores transfer via physical contact between creatures or the plants on which they rest or eat, having year-round milkweed which is visited repeatedly by Monarchs and other butterflies creates a hotbed of these nasty spores and spreads the disease.

Satterfield, et al, suggest hard-to-find native milkweeds should be planted rather than the technically nonnative Tropical milkweed, which is widely available and easy to grow.  Best practice dictates close management of Tropical milkweed.   Cut it to the ground late in the season so OE spores don’t build up and infect migrating Monarchs.

Cowpen daisy

Cowpen daisy: Monarch and pollinator favorite and blooms into fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But what about all the other plants that Monarchs frequent?  In my yard, the native Swamp milkweed continues to thrive and various nectar sources have been repeatedly visited by Monarchs and other butterflies since April.  As the Natural Gardener’s Curt Alston said above, Monarchs are loving the lush, purple bloom of Duranta that laces my fence perimeter.  They also repeatedly visit my golden-yellow, late season Cowpen daisies.

Wouldn’t these plants also host the same debilitating OE spores so closely associated with late season Tropical milkweed after so many return visits from Monarchs?   Should we cut those plants down as well, to avoid infecting visiting flyers?

Scientists, what say you?

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Thanks, El Niño: Llano River Hosts Milkweed Buffet for Monarchs and other Butterflies

First I’d like to say, “Thank you, el Niño.”

I haven’t seen the Llano River or the milkweed and other wildflowers this robust since 2010, the year before the historic Texas drought hit our state.

Milkweed buffet

Decisions, decisions. What’s your pleasure, Monarch caterpillar? photo by Monika Maeckle

A weekend in the Texas Hill Country included a series of thunderstorms, warm temperatures and a bounty of roadside milkweed as well as a variety of Asclepias species on our property we haven’t seen in years.  Our caterpillars literally had a milkweed buffet awaiting them–four different Asclepias species, the Monarch butterfly host plant.

Antelope horns, Asclepias asperula, made a hearty showing in front of our porch.  Under the breezeway deck, a lone Texas milkweed, Asclepias texana, was already sporting blooms.  Down the trail, Pearl milkweed vine, Matelea reticulata, the lovely climber that boasts an attractive pearl-dotted flower, snuck up a nearby pencil cactus.  Along the banks of the Llano River, Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, the pink-blooming host plant offered hearty stalks, broader-than-usual leaves and new stands in places we’ve never noticed.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

Antelope horns and Indian blanket dotted Highways 1871 and 87 in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas milkweed

Texas milkweed, what a trooper–no water, little light, growing under the breezeway. Haven’t seen this one in years. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus.  Can't wait for the flowers.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus. Can’t wait to see the flowers. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the River.  Gotta love it.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the Llano River. Gotta love it. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Only the Swamp milkweed hosted caterpillars and eggs.   The chubby chutes reached out of the Chigger Islands like thin stalks of asparagus.  What a heartening improvement over the scrawny plants of the past few years.

Only one Monarch was spotted flying this weekend, but others had obviously passed through since their offspring were observed in various stages–eggs, just-hatched cats,  second instar larvae and fifth instar caterpillars ready to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Two Monarch eggs over easy--well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed on the Llano.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two Monarch eggs over easy–well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed, on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The wildflower display along Highways 1871 and 87 around Mason and Fredericksburg was among the most spectacular I’ve seen in recent memory. Some mysterious (to me) newcomers joined the bouquet, like the white flower above showing in our watershed. Anybody know what it is?

Prediction:  2015 will be a fantastic year for butterflies, Monarchs in particular.   While the first three months of 2015 clocked as the hottest first quarter in history, it’s been mild and wet in our neck of the woods   And that bodes well for butterflies and other pollinators.

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Q & A: Grad Student Dara Satterfield on Tropical Milkweed and Monarch Butterflies

Graduate student Dara Satterfield caused quite a flutter recently when she was featured in the New York Times as the co-author of a study looking at how Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, may be effecting the health of Monarch butterflies and their Pan-American migration.  Her dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife, with Monarch butterflies as her species focus.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield, PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the article headlined For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back, and promoted heavily online as “Monarch Butterflies:  Loved to Death?” science journalist Liza Gross explored the pros and cons of planting Tropical milkweed.   To read our original story on this topic, check out Tropical Milkweed:  To plant it or not, it’s not a simple question.

Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and other scientists speculate that Tropical milkweed, the most widely available but technically nonnative milkweed and favorite host plant of the Monarch butterfly, may be damaging the Monarchs’ abilities to stay healthy, on track and make their way to Mexico.

“She and her graduate adviser, Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia, fear that well-meaning efforts by butterfly lovers may be contributing to the monarch’s plight,” said the article.

I caught up with Satterfield recently to ask questions that have arisen since the article posted on November 17.   She expressed concern that the NY Times article might have confused some readers–and no doubt the issue is confusing and complex.   Hopefully the Q & A below will clarify matters a bit.

Q: I’ve talked to several scientists that insist that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarchs evolved. Do you agree with that?

DSC00048 - Copy

PhD candidate Dara Satterfield doing field work on Tropical milkweed and the Monarch butterfly migration. Photo courtesy Dara Satterfield

A:  Good question. From what I understand, the historically held view was that Monarchs evolved from a tropical ancestor from Central or South America, and so some scientists have said they must have used Tropical milkweed and other exotic milkweed species early in their speciation.

New evidence suggests a different story. The recent Nature paper examining Monarch genetics revealed that, actually, Monarchs appear to have originated in North America (and would have evolved on native North American milkweed species) and the other Monarch populations in Central America, South America, the Pacific, etc. (some of which would use Tropical milkweed) came from the North American population.

Q. You have said that Monarchs are much more likely to be sick in places where Tropical milkweed grows year-round–but is it really Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) that is the problem? If Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) or Swamp milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) also survived a winter and were available, would the same tendency apply?

A. You are correct, I think. The same disease problem would probably occur with any milkweed species that grew year-round in warm areas and was attractive to Monarchs. It just happens that Tropical milkweed is the species that does stick around. We don’t think Tropical milkweed itself is bad; it’s the year-round growth that is harmful because it promotes disease.  Also, I’d just like to add that we would not even understand this problem without the help of dedicated volunteers and citizen scientists who share observations and collect data. Much of what we know about Monarch ecology can be attributed to the help of citizen scientists.

NOTE from Texas Butterfly Ranch:   Thus, best practice suggests slashing all milkweeds to the ground in late fall if they do not die back from freeze.  This prevents OE spores from building up and spreading disease.

719

Satterfield in the lab, checking for OE spores. Larvae can acquire OE infections by eating parasite spores on milkweed leaves, left there by an infected butterfly (often, the larva’s mom). Courtesy photo

3. What is the purpose of a migration? If everything an insect needs to complete the life cycle is available locally, what interest is there for the insect to migrate?

For most migratory species, the purpose of migration is to track seasonal changes in climate or resources needed for survival and reproduction. Without human interference, migration as a strategy can often support large numbers of animals, because migratory animals may take advantage of the best resources–in different parts of the world at different times of the year (e.g., red knots that travel from the North Pole to the South Pole to experience summer in both hemispheres).

DSC00035

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed. The larvae can pick up OE spores through contact with other creatures or from plants on which the spores rest. Courtesy photo.

But some migratory populations including birds, bats, fish, and hoofed animals are altering their migrations–shortening or halting their journeys–in response to human activities like barriers in their migratory pathways (e.g., dams), changes in climate, and human-provided foods. Examples of this abound (No Way Home, by David Wilcove). Of course some of these newly non-migratory animal populations will be just fine and learn to adapt to new circumstances, but others will not.

Consequences will include changes in infectious diseases, loss of ecosystem services associated with migration (e.g., nutrient transfer between ecosystems by salmon, control of insect populations by birds), and in some cases, species extinction.

For Monarchs specifically, their migration allows them to have a large population capacity. If Monarchs solely engaged in winter-breeding, rather than overwintering in Mexico, this strategy could likely only support a much smaller population. So we try to conserve the abundance of migration.

Of course, individual animals operate on an individual basis and do not make choices based on what is best for the population at large, so individual animals will often take advantage of resources that are available to them–for example, why go to Mexico when I have everything I need here?

The problem with that, in this case of year-round milkweed and year-round Monarch breeding, is extremely high levels of protozoan disease as well as risks of winter starvation (running out of Tropical milkweed) and freeze events that kill caterpillars. The concern is also that migratory Monarchs (or their offspring) might be exposed to parasite-contaminated milkweed in the spring.

All of that said, Dr. Chip Taylor is correct that the link between year-round milkweed and disease is by no means the largest threat to Monarchs. However, given what we now know about this problem, we have the opportunity to reduce disease in Monarchs by keeping milkweed seasonal rather than available all year.

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Endangered Species Act Petition: Wrong Tool for Monarch Butterfly Conservation?

As Monarch butterflies finished their tardy, impressive sweep through Texas in early November demonstrating a 2014 population rebound, those in the Monarch community debated the wisdom of listing the iconic migrating butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

If the Monarch butterfly were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, you could only harvest 10 from your own yard each year. Photo by Veronica Prida

In late August, the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior requesting the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the ESA.

This year’s seemingly healthy population, predicted by experts to be two, perhaps three times as large as last year’s record low, is a welcome turnaround from the post-2010 decline associated with the prolonged Texas drought and other challenges to the migration. The rebound has created a bit of a disconnect, arriving the same year as the petition to consider the iconic migrants’ threatened status.

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use. The ecosystem that supports the Monarch butterfly migration–and pollinator habitat in general–is tattered.  Dr. Chip Taylor stated it well in a recent blog post: “Monarchs clearly aren’t endangered. As this discussion proceeds, we need to make it clear in all communications that it’s about the migration and not the species per se.”

Agreed.

So, is petitioning the federal government to list our favorite butterfly as “threatened” the best way to accomplish that goal?  After giving it much thought, I think not.

Threatened status might motivate large corporations and government agencies to be more considerate of Monarchs and other pollinators, but for private citizens with no government or scientific affiliation, such status could be counter productive.

Monarch cateripllars

Not in your backyard: if ESA threatened status is applied to Monarchs, each household will be allowed to raise only 10 Monarchs per year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As one who enjoys Monarchs visiting my urban garden eight months of the year and roosting along the Llano River in the fall, I take particular issue with the federal government telling me what I can do with my land.

Milkweed and nectar plants fill my San Antonio pollinator gardens.   We’ve also undertaken a riparian restoration in the Texas Hill Country where Monarchs roost each year, an effort that includes planting native milkweeds and other nectar plants along our riverbanks along the Llano River.

In the course of any given year, I raise several hundred butterflies, not just Monarchs, for fun, joy, and to give as gifts. My goal is to inspire appreciation and understanding of our outdoor world and reinforce the majesty of nature in a small, everyday way.

According to the 159-page petition’s final line,  if “threatened” status is approved, such activities would be a crime.  People like me and you will be allowed to raise “fewer than ten Monarchs per year by any individual, household or educational entity”–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

This seems to strike at the very heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic and widely embraced–the crowdsourcing of understanding its migration and the groundswell of interest in conserving it.

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

Citizen scientists and individuals like Catalina Trail were instrumental in the discovery of the Monarch roosting spots in 1976.  File photo.

Let’s not forget that regular folks like us helped piece together the puzzle of the Monarch migration back in 1976 through Dr. Fred Urquhart’s monitoring project and the intrepid explorations of individuals like Catalina Trail, the first person to chance up on the roosts in Michoacán.  Making lawbreakers of regular folks for participating and reserving that privilege only for scientists would do more harm than good.

If milkweed becomes part of critical habitat as defined by the ESA under this petition, that would mean destroying milkweed–or getting caught destroying it–would become a crime punishable by fines or mitigation.   Civil penalties can come to $25,000 per ESA violation and criminal fines up to $100,000 per violation, and/or imprisonment for up to one year.

Many landowners will simply not plant milkweed or will do away with it entirely just to avoid problems.  In some parts of the universe, this is known as Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up, the “practice of killing and burying evidence of any plants or animals that might be threatened or endangered.”   We have seen this attitude first hand in Texas.  Ranchers have been known to destroy first growth Ashe Juniper to preserve grass lands and conserve water to avoid ramifications of disturbing the preferred habitat of the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler.

Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is cited as the enforcement agent for these rules– but how likely is it that agency personnel will have the bandwidth to do so? If enforcement is not practical, what is the point of the rule?

The petitioners take special issue with the commercial butterfly breeding industry, which supplies eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and live butterflies for schools, nature exhibits, conservation activities and events. The petition specifically details how conservation education activities like the rearing of Monarchs in school classrooms or at nature centers will be immune to regulation, “provided that the Monarchs are not provided by commercial suppliers.”

That means if a teacher in a classroom or home school situation in New York City wants to teach metamorphosis to fifth graders using Monarch butterflies, she can only do that with  butterflies personally harvested in the Big Apple. The best intentions often lead to unintended consequences, and that is what I fear in this instance.

“If only wild caterpillars can be collected and brought into the classroom, we will run the risk of excluding urban children…. precisely what we don’t want,” Dr. David Wagner, author of the guide to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, Dr. Felix Sperling of the University of Alberta and Dr. Bruce Walsh, of the University of Arizona, co-wrote in a 2010 article in the News of the Lepidopterist’s Society.

Again, this seems like a case where federal regulation will do more harm than good since the children that most benefit from the tactile experience of raising butterflies are often those living in urban settings with limited access to nature.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Limiting access to butterflies in the classroom to those found only in the wild will severely restrict access to Monarchs by urban children (who most need it), some scientists say.   Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

One of the most contentious issues in the petition is a claim on page 74 that “millions” of Monarch butterflies are released into the environment by commercial butterfly breeders each year.

The claim appears greatly exaggerated to the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), which challenged the number in a press release headlined, “Number of Monarch Butterflies Released Annually Closer to 32,000 than ‘millions and millions’ as Claimed by Endangered Species Act Petitioners.”

[DISCLOSURE:  I serve on the board of the International Butterfly Breeders Association but do not raise butterflies commercially.  I also am a member of the Xerces Society and have hosted both Dr. Chip Taylor and Dr. Lincoln Brower at our ranch.]

The IBBA challenged the basis for such a claim, noting that the “millions and millions” citation was, in fact, lifted from a single newspaper op-ed piece published eight years ago.  The author, Professor Jeffrey Lockwood, University of Wyoming, acknowledged the number was guesswork.

“That such an unverified claim surfaced in a formal petition before the Secretary of the Interior demonstrates a serious failure in documentation at best,” Kathy Marshburn, IBBA president, said in the press release.

Dr. Tracy Villareal, an IBBA board member, oceanographer, and part owner of Big Tree Butterflies butterfly farm in Rockport, Texas, called the claim “misleading and poor scholarship.” Villareal told me by phone that he would grade such secondhand references unacceptable in a graduate student’s dissertation.

“The authors made no attempt to determine the composition of the 11 million–how many of each species, for example. Nor did they attempt to contact the author to determine how he arrived at this number.  It took me about four hours from my initial email to Professor Lockwood to find out how it was done.”  Read the IBBA’s challenge to the numbers for yourself.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores can be debilitating for Monarch butterflies.   Concerns about infecting the wild population with the nasty spore persist, and studies continue.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it. In particular, the unpronounceable Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses special concern since it debilitates the butterflies and appears to thrive in conditions where the creatures congregate en masse, are crowded, and/or where milkweeds overwinter, carrying the spores into the next season.

Yet, scientists agree that OE is present in the wild population, too, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Only when health or conditions are degraded does the disease overtake the butterflies. The science is still uncertain on this.  Studies continue.

Like any industry, commercial butterfly breeding attracts good citizens and bad, but it seems highly unlikely that people who gravitated to the challenging task of breeding butterflies for a living would intentionally release damaged goods into nature. That just makes for bad business. Does the industry need better checks and balances on the health of livestock released into nature?  Absolutely.

The IBBA, an international organization of 104 breeders, plans to release new counts for the number of butterflies released annually at its conference that begins November 12 in Ft. Lauderdale. The organization also will host a discussion on changing or increasing self-policing practices of its membership to keep livestock as disease-free as possible.  As Villareal said in a recent email exchange on the DPLEX list, a listserv frequented by hundreds of folks in the Monarch community, “Working from clean breeders is a critical first step in production. I repeat this for everybody in the back row. CLEAN BREEDERS ARE CRITICAL.”

The ESA petition has created conflict in the small-but-passionate world of butterfly advocates.  A far better use of the community’s time and energy could be spent on initiatives and public education campaigns to restore migratory habitat.

It’s already happening in many ways, through government and small-but-significant public- private partnerships.

In June, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum calling for all federal agencies to “substantially expand pollinator habitat on federal lands, and to build on federal efforts with public-private partnerships.”  Pollinator Week Proclamations have been declared in 45 states, recognizing the vital services that pollinators provide.  The EPA released guidance to help scientists assess the potential risks various pesticides pose to bees, and the USDA announced an $8 million initiative to provide funding to farmers and ranchers who establish new pollinator habitats on agricultural lands as part of its Conservation Reserve Program.

Hardberger Park Land bridge

Yes, please.  Hardberger Park land bridge would facilitate safe movement of wildlife–including pollinators. Photo via Rivard Report

Here in my hometown, we are working with the leadership of San Antonio’s Hemisfair Area Redevelopment Corporation to include pollinator habitat in their upcoming reimagination of the historic 65-acre downtown park that was home to the city’s 1968 world’s fair. Our local public utility, CPS Energy, recently supported the installation of a pollinator garden right downtown at their headquarters on the San Antonio River Walk.   And on our city’s heavily developed northwest quadrant, Hardberger Park has a dedicated butterfly garden. The park conservancy is raising money for a spectacular land bridge that will facilitate safe movement of pollinators and other wildlife.

Let’s focus on individual actions and crafting effective public-private partnerships that raise awareness, plant more milkweed and nectar plants and make rebounds like 2014 common fare–and keep the federal government out of our yards.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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