Increased cash, awareness, rain, egg-laying: good news for 2015 Monarch butterfly migration

What a difference a year makes.

At the end of 2014, we were hanging our heads contemplating the end of the Monarch butterfly migration.  The 2013 -2014 season was the worst in history, with roosting populations numbering the lowest since records have been kept.   The entire Monarch breeding population had fallen from highs of more than half a billion 20 years ago to only 34 million in 2014.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Dr. Chip Taylor released an upbeat revision to his Monarch population status report based on increased egg laying in the summer breeding grounds. Photo of captive Monarch in egg-laying mode.  Courtesy Edith Smith

But then in February of this year, scientists reported a bit of rebound. The population of roosting Monarchs climbed to about 56 million. Still a long way from its peak, but progress. NOTE: For those unaware, scientists measure the number of hectares Monarch butterflies occupy at the roosting sights in Michoacán, Mexico, each winter to calculate their population. Each hectar (about 2.5 acres) occupied represents 50 million butterflies.

The good news continues. On August 6, Dr. Chip Taylor released an upbeat Monarch population status report, based on robust egg laying in the Dakotas to Michigan this summer. “I’m encouraged by the egg data,” Dr. Taylor wrote on August 6. “The size of the migration is strongly influenced by the number of eggs laid between 20 July and 7 August.”

Taylor revised a previous forecast upward, stating the population might jump to occupy 1.8 – 2.3 hectares in Michoacán.  That would translate to 90 – 115 million Monarchs–continuing the rebound and doubling 2014’s numbers.

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Late summer rains will help sustain nectar sources for migrating Monarch butterflies, like these nectaring on Frostweed on the Llano River  in 2013. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The weather and political climate both seem to be cooperating.   Texas, home to the “Texas  funnel” through which all migrating Monarchs pass each spring and fall on their way from and to their roosting spots, has had a delightfully wet spring and relatively mild summer.  An end-of summer dry spell has been broken by periodic thunderstorms that can hopefully keep nectar sources viable for Monarchs when they cruise through the strategically situated Texas Hill Country later this season.

The drought has seen relief and meteorologists are predicting a “Godzilla el Niño” this winter, which conceivably could return our rivers and springs to their former free-flowing status.

Texas drought monitor, mid August 2014 and same time 2015. via droughtmonitor.edu

On the public awareness front, concern, understanding and resources directed at the Monarch butterfly migration and pollinator advocacy have never been stronger or more dedicated.

President Obama used his office to call attention to pollinators with his visit to Toluca, Mexico in February of 2014, where he and the Presidents of Canada and Mexico vowed to protect the Pan-American Monarch migration.   Two months later, First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first pollinator garden at the White house.  In June of 2014, Obama issued a Presidential memorandum calling for a National Pollinator Strategy, which was delivered in May of 2015.  The goals of the strategy are ambitious and far-reaching:

1. Reduce Honey bee colony losses by more than 15% within 10 years.

2. Increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population to 225 million (their historic average), with an occupation of 15 acres in Michoacán by 2020.

3. Restore or enhance seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

Just in the last 18 months, millions of dollars have poured into Monarch butterfly and pollinator research and restoration efforts–from US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, US Department of Agriculture–even the Texas State Comptroller’s office.  As one federal employee stated, “Every department of the federal government has been tasked to contribute [to Monarch conservation] in some way.”  Monsanto Corporation, oft-vilified makers of Round-Up and neonicinitoids, has contributed millions to research–more than $4 million in matching grants and other support over three years.

Here’s just a 2015 sampling of Monsanto’s and your tax dollars at work on behalf of Monarch and pollinator restoration:

US Fish and Wildlife Service                 $2 million

Texas State Comptroller’s Office           $300,000

National Fish and Wildlife Fdn.            $1 million

Bureau of Land Management               $250,000

US Dept. of Agriculture National         $250,000
Resource Conservation Svce.

US Forest Service                              $100,000

Monsanto Corporation                         $4 million

Thanks to all the newfound attention and investment–about $8 million from the incomplete list above–butterfly and pollinator advocates have been able to partake in a free webinar series on Monarch conservation staged by US Fish and Wildlife.  Private landowners (including

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! For raising pollinator awareness. Courtesy photo

yours truly) have the option to work with the federal government to be reimbursed for pollinator improvements on private land throught the Partners for Wildlife program.  And greater understanding of milkweed types and Monarch diseases is resulting from work being done at Monarch Watch, the Monarch Joint Venture, Journey North, and the recently established Monarch Conservation Fund as well as higher learning institutions like University of Texas at San Antonio.

Regional educational conferences like the upcoming Texas Pollinator Powwow are also reaching new audiences, taking pollinators mainstream.   The private sector is also responding.   From mega grower Colorspot Nursery to boutiques like the Natural Gardener in Austin–which had five different native milkweeds available last weekend–nurseries are offering more clean, chemical free milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the gardening public.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are on the move. Should be a banner year.  Get your tags soon from Monarch Watch.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the millions being directed to pollinator conservation are minuscule compared to the billions directed to farm subsidies each year, it’s still good news and more than has ever been focused on the issue.  We expect more as the grants mentioned above are executed, more data is collected and ways of restoring our native landscapes and milkweed stocks are researched and shared.   Whether or not the Monarch butterfly migration will continue as a natural phenomenon to be enjoyed by our grandchildren is an open question.

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Monarch Butterfly Release “Better than any church service”

My 93-year-old father John Maeckle passed away August 2 after a long battle with dementia.  An avid hunter and fisherman, “Opa” disdained organized religion even more than politicians and preferred Sundays at the deer lease or the lake over church.  He taught me to waterski, fish and garden, to find solace and adventure in the great outdoors, and that “life is full of compromises.”

Opa butterfly release

On the count of three–Eins, zwei, drei–and off they went. Photo by Scott Ball

After serving as a Luftwaffe pilot in the German Air Force and as a prisoner of war in England until 1947, he and my mom Hilde immigrated to the U.S from Germany in 1953 after humble, difficult beginnings in southern Germany.   Not unlike migrating Monarchs each fall, they left unwelcoming circumstances to build a better life.  My dad become a custom home builder in the Dallas area during the 1960s building boom, supported his family, and sent me to college to become the first Maeckle to ever earn a degree.  He and my mom lived the American Dream. Read his full story here.

John Maeckle 1921-2015

John Maeckle        1921-2015

Given that profile, and my passion for butterflies, our family thought it appropriate to celebrate my father’s life with a butterfly release.  A church service or funeral home reception simply wouldn’t fit.

I thought long and hard about it.  Some people I respect think that butterfly releases are wrong and I appreciate their point of view.

In our case, a butterfly release was the perfect gesture for celebrating my father’s life.  I ordered 93 butterflies from my friends Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas.  I’ve come to know them through my memberships in the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association and the Association for Butterflies.   Barbara and Tracy are both scientists and butterfly breeders who follow best practices and run a professional breeding operation.

It was the right move.

Following a poem by our neighbor and renown poet Naomi Nye, a duet sung in German by family opera singers Melinda Maeckle Martin and her husband Robert Martin, and fond memories recalled by family members, we moved from the air-conditioned living area of our downtown home into the late afternoon sun of the butterfly garden.

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Each of about 50 friends and family received a healthy Monarch butterfly in a glycine envelope–the same type of envelope Dr. Lincoln Brower used to store butterflies when he came to visit the Texas Hill Country during the horrific 2011 drought.

The rest of the butterflies were safely secured in a pop-up cage (actually a converted laundry hamper) until the appropriate moment, which in this case, was the finale of our gathering. Following Robert Martin’s beautiful baritone rendition of the German version of Taps, we released the butterflies.   On the count of three, in German:  “Eins, zwei, drei!” off they went.

day of dead mask

The return of Monarchs return to Michoacán, Mexico, early each November made indigenous peoples believe their ancestors were coming home to visit.  Courtesy photo.

Ooos and ahs filled the yard as guests aged six to 82 marveled. The Monarchs lilted on guests’ shirts and shoulders, danced on Cowpen Daisies and milkweeds, and drifted around the yard in their dreamy flight pattern–floating, flitting, fleeting, like so many old souls. You could easily understand why the indigenous peoples of Mexico thought Monarchs were their ancestors returning to visit each fall for Day of the Dead in early November.

“It was better than any church service,” said my 82-year-old mother Hilde.

Because I have a magnificent butterfly garden with plenty of nectar sources including five different types of milkweed, the Monarchs have stuck around.   One week later, I’m still enjoying a half-dozen of them, nectaring on late summer blooms.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

A week later, Monarchs are still nectaring in our butterfly garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I’ve gathered dozens of eggs and found several first instar caterpillars, too.  In fact, my partner Local Sprout founder Mitchell Hagney and I hope to raise the caterpillars and offer them as Milkweed and Monarch rearing kits at a future pop-up plant sale in about a month.  I can’t imagine a better way to honor my father and celebrate the life cycle.  Opa would approve.

First instar caterpillar and egg

First instar Monarch caterpillar and egg. The life cycle continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Upon considering writing this post, I revisited some of the negative press on butterfly releases.   They “turn butterflies into baubles.”  They might “mess with the migration” or “pollute the gene pool.”

It’s true that a handful of shoddy breeders have damaged the commercial butterfly breeding business by sending unhealthy livestock out into the universe while ignorant customers take the blame for mishandling precious butterfly livestock.  Here’s a tip for a successful butterfly release:  Read the handling instructions and don’t leave live butterflies out in the blazing sun while you touch up your wedding make-up, people.

For those of us who know what we’re doing and which breeders are reputable, I cannot fathom how any of this can be bad or wrong.

Opa butterfly Nola's

“Opa butterfly” collage by family friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, age 8, assembled at Opa’s gathering. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Fifty people who had never thought twice about butterflies have now had a tactile experience with them and will view them forever differently.   My niece and nephew Amara, 8, and Alaric Martin, 6, and good friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, 8,  chased butterflies around the yard for hours following the release, completely enchanted and forever touched by them.

Conservationists will tell you the most effective path to protecting a species or an ecosystem is engagement.   A butterfly release does that.

“A physical connection is absolutely crucial to getting people to care about something,” said Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging and advocacy organization based at the University of Kansas.  “You’ve got to have face time with the species.”

As for speculative claims that thousands of commercially raised butterflies released into the ecosystem will “pollute” the gene pool, there’s no evidence of that to date.   And the numbers just don’t add up.

One source close to the industry said an internal survey of breeders suggested fewer than 250,000 Monarch butterflies are released each year around the United States–less than a half a percent of the 57 million Monarch butterflies that migrated last year.   On top of that, those butterflies are released at different times and dispersed throughout the 3.8 million square miles of these United States.  As Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch has said repeatedly, “Releases, in the present form, are a minor issue but they sure generate a lot of heat.”

But this post is not meant to argue that point.  It hopes to celebrate the life cycle we all share.   And to acknowledge, as my wise father would often say, that “life is full of compromises.”  In this case, the engagement with butterflies and the resulting embrace of their conservation far outweigh the unproven risks claimed by butterfly release detractors.

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$300K Grant Awarded to UTSA to Study Monarch Butterfly, Inventory Texas Milkweeds

The Texas State Comptroller’s office awarded the University of Texas at San Antonio a $300,000 grant to study the Monarch butterfly this week.   Dr. Janis Bush, a plant ecologist and the university’s director of environmental science academic programs, will oversee the research.

jbush1

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush will oversee the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

According to a press release issued by the Comptroller’s office, the study will “evaluate the abundance, species type and distribution of milkweed—an important food source for Monarchs —in Texas. It also will examine land management approaches to enhance the abundance of milkweed if necessary.”

Why is the State Comptroller’s office awarding grants for butterfly research?

Because 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 assess their economic impact on the state. And since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act last August, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls in the Task Force’s wheelhouse.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature will fund the UTSA grant; Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio heads up the Task Force.

Dr. Bush said via phone that the survey will take place over two years and replicate research done by Dr. William Calvert in 1996 which had him drive IH-10 from the Louisana border to El Paso, documenting milkweeds along the way.  Dr. Calvert, of Austin, is credited with revealing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites to the world after Catalina Trail, also of Austin, led Dr. Fred Urquhart to the location in MIchoacán, Mexico back in 1975.  At the time, Dr. Urquhart wrote an explosive cover story on the discovery for  National Geographic magazine, but refused to reveal the location of the roosting sites.  Dr. Calvert did that about a year later.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, PHoto by Monika Maeckle

“We’ll try to duplicate Dr. Calvert’s study so we can compare the current milkweed populations to what he found,” she said, adding that the study will not just cover milkweeds, but will be a full-blown vegetation survey.

“It will include species identification for everything except grasses which will be done by family,” she said.   Graduate students will conduct the work, which will begin immediately.

In addition to plant identification, students will document the presence of any Monarch caterpillars, fire ants (which are famous for destroying Monarch eggs and small larvae) and other predators, as well as anything else that might enlighten us about creating opitmal Monarch butterfly habitat in the Lone Star State.  Read a summary of the project here.

Dr. Bush, with a PhD in ecological sciences and engineering, has extensive experience in native plants in Texas–and milkweeds in particular.   She wrote her dissertation on the federally threatened sunflower, Helianthus paradoxus, and oversaw Dr. Terri Matiella’s dissertation on milkweed when Matiella was a UTSA graduate student.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

The UTSA grant will survey native milkweeds and their surrounding vegetation and other factors to help determine how to create optimal milkweed habitat.  Here, Antelope horns and Indian blanket dot the roadside in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Matiella’a paper, “The Effects of Carbon Dioxide on Milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) and Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larvae” focused on the impact of climate change on Asclepias curassavica, the much discussed, technically nonnative Tropical Milkweed.  It awaits publication, hopefully later this year.  Dr. Matiella now serves as a lecturer in UTSA’s environmental sciences department and will serve on the research team.

The news was well received in the passionate Monarch butterfly community, but as always, also raised questions.

“It makes sense,” said Mike Quinn, an Austin-based entomologist who runs Texas Monarch Watch and the educational website texasento.net. “San Antonio is more or less in the heart of the Monarch butterfly flyway.  Hopefully, this study will provide a clearer picture of Monarch habitat usage, or at the very minimum, the habitat that’s available to Monarchs here in Texas.”

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Others voiced concerns that the grant money was not being best utiltized.  “A lot of this stuff has already been done,” said one source involved in local Monarch activities who chose not to be named.  “There seems to be a lot of reinventing of the wheel.”

Organizations like Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, the Xerces Society, and the Pollinator Partnership have already done significant research on what it takes to continue the Monarch butterfly migration.  And most folks who follow Monarchs in Texas agree that a lack of milkweed in the Lone Star State is not an obstacle here.

“If everyone planted grass in their front yard, it wouldn’t bring back the buffalo,” said one skeptic, adding that researchers should target milkweed plantings “to where it’s been GMO’ed out.”

That would be the Midwestern corn belt, the Monarchs’ primary summer breeding grounds.  There, genetically modified corn and soybean crops have allowed indiscriminate spraying of herbicides like Round-Up, which essentially leave fields sterile except for the corn and soybean that have been biologically altered to withstand poisons.   In the past, milkweeds grew vigorously between the corn rows providing breeding season host plant for migrating butterflies.

No milkweed studies have been conducted in the strategically important “Texas funnel” through which migrating Monarchs pass each spring and fall on their multi-generation migratory journey since Calvert’s 1996 research.  The Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, a citizen science initiative started by Monarch expert Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, has been active here for years, religiously monitoring milkweeds and collecting data on milkweeds, Monarch butterflies, caterpillars and eggs at the Milkweed Patch along the San Antonio River and at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne.   While that data and the contributions of citizen scientists are immensely useful and well recognized, more scientific data is needed to figure out how to create optimal milkweed habitat, said Dr. Bush.

“We need to answer questions like what is the herbaceous cover around existing milkweeds?  Do they like competition from other plants or do they like open areas? Are native and/or nonnative grasses growing nearby?  What is the soil depth?” she said.

After two years of study, we should have a better idea of how private and public landowners can best manage their properties to increase milkweed and pollinator habitat.  We look forward to the findings.

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IH35 to become Pollinator Corridor for Bees, Monarch Butterflies, and other Pollinators

President Barack Obama has an exciting plan on the table with special meaning for Texas:  Interstate Highway 35, known as IH-35 or I-35 in the Lone Star State, will be the focus of a national strategy to bring back honey bees, Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

Coming Soon:  IH-35 to become a pollinator corridor for Monarchs, bees and others pollinators. Video by Monika Maeckle

Starting in Duluth, Minnesota and ending in Laredo, Texas, the 1,568-mile-long highway links three of Texas’ largest metropolitan areas–Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin and San Antonio. Soon it may be better known for an ambitious prairie restoration than for its famous traffic snarls and congestion.

The Office of the President announced the proposed pollinator corridor in the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document released May 19.  It continues Obama’s steady drumbeat on behalf of the insects responsible for pollinating 75% of all plants and making one of every three bites of food we eat possible.

In the past 12 months, President Obama has met with the presidents of Mexico and Canada to discuss a Pan-American strategy for saving the iconic Monarch butterfly migration; planted the first-ever pollinator garden at the White House with his wife Michelle; and announced the formation of a Pollinator Task Force that produced the National Pollinator Strategy document.  Obama will surely go down in history as the “pollinator president.”

The goals of the strategy are ambitious and far-reaching:

1.  Reduce Honey bee colony losses by more than 15% within 10 years.

2.  Increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population to 225 million (their historic average), with an occupation of 15 acres in Michoacán by 2020.

3.   Restore or enhance seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

bee_pollen_macro

Bees are master pollinators. –photo via http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Why the big focus on pollinators? Because they’re under siege.

Beekeepers lost 40% of their honey bee populations last year.  The beloved Monarch butterfly, whose iconic migration weaves together three countries, has also suffered enormously.  Their entire eastern population occupied only 1.65 acres at their roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico in 2013–an area smaller than the average Wal-Mart store and representing a drop of 90% from their peak in the 1990s.   While the Monarch has made a slight rebound this last year, the general numbers continue to be worrisome, as the butterfly is also considered an indicator of general ecosystem health, the “canary in the cornfield.”

Bats, moths, beetles, birds and other butterflies all face the multi-whammy of habitat destruction, genetically modified crops reducing their wildscape habitats, pesticide abuse and climate change.  The myriad challenges are taking their toll as reflected in the submission of the Monarch as a candidate to be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act last August.

Governments across the hemisphere are concerned about this loss of our natural heritage as well as the possibility of putting an affordable, diverse food supply at risk. Given that  the unpaid pollination services provided to the U.S. by the bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, bats, beetles, and birds totalled $15 billion in 2009, the $82.5 million budgeted in the strategy for honeybee research in the coming budget year, up from $34 million, seems like a good investment. In China, for example, fruit trees and other crops must be pollinated by hand because of the loss of insect pollinators attributed to pollution and other factors.

Hand pollination in China

Hand pollination in China. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California

The strategy document’s third stated goal holds special meaning for the Lone Star State:  restoration of seven million acres of habitat focusing largely on federal lands and the IH35 corridor.

With almost 600 miles of IH35 here, almost double the I35 miles in any other state, “Texas is indeed poised to be a big player in this Federal Pollinator Strategy,” said Don Wilhelm, US Fish and Wildlife Region 2 Partners for Fish and Wildlife Coordinator, via email.

IH35 mileage by state

Texas has almost double the mileage of IH 35 of any other state. Graphic via Wikipedia

With its proximity to Mexico and status as the “Texas Funnel,”  through which Monarch butterflies, Mexican free-tailed bats, and myriad pollinators migrate south, Texas will be a big beneficiary of government funding and public-private partnerships focusing on the research, outreach, education and land restoration efforts outlined in the document, Wilhelm said.  It’s important to note that the IH35 “focus” does not translate literally to mean pollinator plantings adjacent to 70-mile-per-hour highway traffic.  While rest areas and area landscapes will include pollinator plantings, the “focus” references the general area surrounding the IH35, USFWS staff stressed.

Texas also is home to the premiere native plant center in the country, The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  In fact, the Austin native plant paradise is already working with the Federal government on ways to increase native milkweed seed production species and prototypes.  Also involved: the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.  And further south on the border in Mission is the National Butterfly Center.

Skipper on Swamp Milkweed, Llano River

Looking to see more of these on native milkweeds: Skipper on Swamp Milkweed, Llano River  Photo by Monika Maeckle

On page 26 of the document, another opportunity awaits Texas:   federal agencies will be working with the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association of electrical utilities, and the National Electric Reliability Council (NERC) on redefining the rules for transmission line rights of way (RoW) habitat.  “These RoWs can be cost-effectively managed to offer prime pollinator habitat of low-growing grasses, forbs, and shrubs, using techniques such as Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM).”

Texas is home to dozens of power companies including two of the largest publicly owned utilities in the country.   CPS Energy in San Antonio is the largest municipally owned electric and gas utility in the country;  Austin Energy is the eighth largest municipally owned electric utility.  These entities, lauded for their progressive policies on renewable energy by the Pew Center, own tens of thousands of acres of land and control thousands of miles of right of way (RoW) habitat under power and transmission lines.

More native milkweed and other pollinator plants will result from research and habitat restoration projects associated with the pollinator strategy. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

More native milkweed and other pollinator plants will result from research and habitat restoration projects associated with the pollinator strategy. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

A huge opportunity exists to manage these areas as pollinator friendly areas of low growing grasses, forbs, and shrubs.    Federal agencies are revising the rules governing power line RoWs to further these beneficial pollinator practices.  Investor owned utilities can also get on board, but the public utilities will be more inclined to cooperate.  CPS Energy and Austin Energy have a unique opportunity to make pollinator power happen here.  (NOTE:  I work as a communications consultant to CPS Energy and have proposed a pollinator policy in the past.)   This federal nudge will likely get things moving.

The process has begun.  Dr. Julie McIntrye, USFWS endangered species ecologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, relayed via email that a Monarch Outreach Specialist has just been hired by the agency to focus specifically on utilities and the IH-35 corridor.  One of the many priorities of this position: create more pollinator habitats with RoWs, pollinator habitats at rest-stops, and “getting the I-35 Monarch Prairie Passage initiated.”

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Tropical Milkweed OK for Monarch Butterflies, “Just Cut the Dang Stuff Down”

“Can well-meaning people sometimes make things worse?”

That was the provocative subhead on an article by Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, founder and president of  the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) in that organization’s most recent edition of American Butterflies Magazine.

Glassberg, who holds a PhD in biology, a law degree and credentials as an entrepreneur, author and butterfly advocate, challenged the recent scientific assertions made by Satterfield et al  that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is bad news for Monarch butterflies.

Tropical milkweed:  The debate continues.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: The debate continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Glassberg challenges the study’s claims about Tropical milkweed’s appropriateness in South Texas, where the North American Butterfly Center operates in Mission along the Texas-Mexico border.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In case you missed it, Dara Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and her graduate advisor, Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia and one of the foremost experts on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a Monarch-centric spore driven disease known as OE, suggest in their research that sedentary winter-breeding butterflies are at increased risk of OE. They speculate that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, 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.

Native to Central America and Mexico, Tropical milkweed grows well and sometimes year round in Texas and Florida.  Scientists worry that it might be confusing Monarchs, making them skip their migration and reproduce locally.  When they do that, spores from butterflies infected with OE build up on the plant and may transfer the disease to other caterpillars, chrysalises, and later, butterflies, resulting in crippling and even death.  Read the Tropical milkweed fact sheet.

Just to be clear:  Satterfield, et al DO NOT THINK TROPICAL MILKWEED IS EVIL.  In fact, they say exactly that in a statement issued by Monarch Joint Venture and shared via the DPlex, a listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly followers.

“Tropical milkweed itself is not ‘bad.’ (It provides larval food for Monarchs in many places where it occurs naturally, such as across the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.),” the scientists said in a statement released in January following the milkweed kerfuffle.

“The truth is that we don’t really know,” if butterflies infected with OE at winter-breeding locations will impact the Monarch population as a whole, the statement said.

So to be fair,  the scientists admit that much is still to be determined about the impact of Tropical milkweed on the Monarch butterfly population.   That’s why they suggest cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground over the fall and winter–so the OE spores can’t build up.

Glassberg takes the Satterfield et al. study to task, challenging the assertions with his own data fueled theories.

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates.  Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasorski

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates. Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasowski

Nonmigrating Monarch butterflies in Hawaii  and Arizona have lesser-than-average levels of OE infection, notes Glassberg, pointing out that some Monarchs overwinter and sustain themselves on evergreen milkweeds like Fringed twinevine and Pineneedle milkweed.

Such examples “suggest that the level of OE infection might not be as highly correlated with non-migratory behavior and that the presence of an evergreen supply of milkweeds doesn’t necessarily mean that OE levels will be high, as Satterfield et al. conclude,” he writes.

“Perhaps the higher levels of infection that Satterfield et al. found to be associated with Tropical milkweeds were due to temperature effects or other factors not intrinsic to Tropical milkweed,” Glassberg writes, suggesting that global warning and higher temperatures beg the question: what is a native plant, anyway?

Climate change is already making the range for Tropical milkweed creep north and “if and when that happens, wouldn’t it be a good thing for there to be extensive areas in the southern United States that might serve as reservoirs for Monarchs that would then be able to repopulate more northern areas, much as Painted Ladies and American Ladies do now?”

Hardiness zones redefined by USDA

In 2012, the USDA redefined hardiness zones in response to climate change.  San Antonio moved to Zone 9a from Zone 8b.  Will Tropical milkweed eventually rank as “native”?  Screengrab via USDA

When asked about the article, Satterfield responded by email that “We do plan to address why our paper rules out effects of temperature and geography and points to year-round milkweed as the source of the high levels of disease.”

Glassberg makes a lot of sense here.   His characterization of Tropical milkweed as a “life buoy” for Monarchs until the commercial market for native milkweeds can be developed holds great appeal.  In a recent webinar staged by US Fish and Wildlife Service  on creating Monarch butterfly habitat in the U.S., experts stated that it will take a minimum of five years to create a commercial market for native milkweeds.   That’s a long time for Monarchs to wait around for the perfect locavore food, especially when Tropical milkweed is already on the market, easy-to-grow and very affordable.

Troipcal milkweed:  "Life buoy" for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: “Life buoy” for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My approach in the garden includes Tropical milkweed as a foundation, natives preferred, but more challenging to grow.  And I’m not alone.  Plenty of us who follow Monarchs believe the Tropical milkweed debate is bloated and misguided.

Here’s what Edith Smith, one of the most seasoned, experienced and thoughtful commercial butterfly breeders on the planet and owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, thinks about the focus on Tropical milkweed:   “…They’re so fussy about that plant. If only they’d stop to think, they’d realize that if a couple of treaties had been written a bit different and the southern border of our country had been drawn a hundred miles further south, Tropical milkweed WOULD be a U.S. native.  SHEESH!”

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

She adds:  “As far as it being good/bad for Monarchs … let’s remove all the Tropical milkweed from Mexico and see what happens to the Monarch population in the US. That in itself should answer the question.”

Another Monarch expert suggested everyone just chill on the Tropical milkweed fixation, pointing out that a better investment of time, energy and money would be replenishing the million-plus acres of pollinator habitat lost each year.  Arguing about narrow strips of Tropical milkweed along the coastline constitutes a huge misplaced priority.

“Just cut the dang stuff down at the end of the season–maybe twice. We’re wasting too much time on this issue. There are bigger problems,” said the source.

Monarch caterpillars tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillars on Tropical milkweed, April, 2015  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Even Catalina Trail, the woman who discovered the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico back in 1975, plants Tropical milkweed in her Austin garden.  “I would prefer to have native milkweeds in my yard, but they’re impossible to grow,” she said by phone.  “I have two Tropical milkweeds in my yard.”

This website has reported repeatedly on this topic and I am at peace with my stance:   Tropical milkweed fills a gap for Monarch butterflies. Just cut it back.

Both early and late in the season, Tropical milkweed is often the ONLY milkweed available for migrating Monarchs.   The eggs of the caterpillars pictured above were laid in late March and because of our cool spring, no native milkweed was up and out of the ground yet.   My Tropical milkweed from last year, which had been cut to the ground in December as per best practice, had plenty of fine, tender new leaves ready for the hungry critters when they arrived.

Had I not this Tropical milkweed in my yard, the migrating Monarch who laid the eggs that became today’s caterpillars in my yard would have had to keep flying, seeking milkweed that in this cool Texas spring was mostly absent until now.  Who knows where/if she would have found a place to lay her eggs before perishing?

Meanwhile, in the Fall, the only native milkweed I see is Swamp milkweed along the Llano River, and it’s usually in bad shape, ravaged by aphids and the summer heat.   Tropical milkweed is the only food available for late season caterpillars, and the lack of available caterpillar food often results in a caterpillar food emergency, with folks calling around town to friends and local nurseries to see if anyone has clean, chemical free milkweed available.   Some breeders and enthusiasts have taken to offering pumpkin, cucumbers and other “alternative fuels” for late season Monarchs.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo by Ellen Reid

Making an issue about Tropical milkweed reminds me of the locavore food movement: idealistic, admirable, but now always practical.   The caterpillars have to eat.

Imagine you’re driving cross-country with your family and you and the kids find yourselves famished. Sure, you’d prefer to stop at a local diner where good food was whipped up from scratch from local organic ingredients, responsibly harvested, lovingly prepared, delicious, nutritious and affordable.

But that’s not always possible.   Sometimes you have to hit the drive-through of a fast-food joint because that’s all there is.  And that will get you to the next place.

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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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Marine Biologist Launches App to Track Monarch Butterflies on Oil Rigs in Gulf

monarchsonrope

Monarch butterflies resting on an oil rig rope in the Gulf of Mexico in Oct.-Dec.  1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

“The experience on the rig was certainly an unforgettable one…to see the cloud coming from all around in a mass that settled on every available space from the top of the derrick to the floors. Everything was covered…. There were butterflies on top of butterflies. The deck hands were busy with wash-down hoses and had to keep it up to be able to handle the gear while drilling. Some of the older hands said it was a yearly occurrence in the area.”

 –Mrs. Hylma Gordon of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as told to  Bryant Mather and published in News of the Lepidopterists’ Society (July/August 1990), No. 4, page 59:

Dr. Tracy Villareal is atypical in the butterfly world.   He’s a PhD–but not in entomology.  He’s a butterfly breeder–but as a marine biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, he spends his days looking at small marine plants called phytoplankton
rather than coaxing caterpillars to morph to the next stage. Dr. Villareal and his partner Dr. Barbara Dorf, who serves as a Fishery Biologist at

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. along the Gulf, operate the Big Tree Butterflies farm in Rockport, Texas, when they’re not pulling duty at their full-time jobs.

So it seems the perfect marriage of passion and profession for Villareal to develop an app to track Monarch butterflies crossing the ocean–that is, the Gulf of Mexico.  “As an oceanographer I can’t bring much to bear in the terrestrial world, but this is flying over water,” he said in a series of conversations discussing his latest project.

As if migrating 3,000 miles were not impressive enough, evidence suggests that Monarch butterflies, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, cross the vast 450+ mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico each year to make their famous trek to Michoacán in the mountains of Mexico.   Another scientist, Baton Rouge-based Gary Noel Ross, who holds a PhD in entomology,  documented the existence of myriad Monarch roosts on oil rigs as late as 1993.

Dr. gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Villareal heard about the ocean crossings via the DPLX list, a listserv for butterfly enthusiasts, and began researching the idea of verifying whether or not the phenom continues today.

Given the lack of population on oil rigs, Dr. Villareal figured the best way to collect data would be to develop a very simple app that oil rig workers, fisher persons, even helicopter pilots might use to collect data on the whereabouts of Monarch butterflies. The app would register and automatically geolocate the datapoint, which would load to the cloud and populate a map, providing a real-time picture of where Monarchs are congregating at sea.  The app would work in a similar fashion to the well-utilized Journey North app, but it could go global and would be cloud-, rather than server-based.

“This needs to be as simple as possible,” said Dr. Villareal by phone.  “I don’t want (oil company) management out there telling people this is too distracting.”

But will oil rig workers take the time to contribute citizen science data? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Photos published in the Southern Lepidopterist Society newsletter by Dr. Ross, taken in the 90s, show oil rig workers netting butterflies. See below.

Oil rig workers tagging Monarch butterflies

Oil rig workers netting and tagging Monarch butterflies in October 1991. Photo via Southern Lepidopterist Society Newsletter

Dr. Ross supports the introduction of technology to the phenomenon he labeled the “Trans Gulf Express.”

“Technology has a lot to offer for field biologists,” said Dr. Ross via email, adding that if Dr. Villareal’s project gets underway and the app widely embraced, good data will be harvested that can be easily analyzed using digital tools.  “At the time of my work I had to rely on helicopter pilots and rig workers calling in to me at my location,” he recalled.  Dr. Ross offered that he personally thinks that Monarchs continue to cross the Gulf.

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. - Nov. 1993.  Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. – Nov. 1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas-based citizen scientist program that tags Monarch butterflies, agrees.

“As long as there are Monarchs, they will appear from time to time on rigs in the Gulf,” said Dr. Taylor.  Dr. Taylor and Monarch Watch are partners in the venture, kicking off a fundraising effort to raise $8,000 for Villareal’s app with a $4,000 matching grant–half the total.  The funds will be used to take the app beyond the development phase.  “It may help us learn more about the how and why,” said Dr. Taylor. “The survival question will be more difficult to answer,” he said.

Monarchs on oil rigs app

Dr. Tracy Villareal’s app will track Monarch butterflies on oil rigs. Click on over and help raise the needed funds to take the app out of the beta stage.

Want to help?   Check out the fundraising campaign, Tracking Monarch Butterflies on Offshore Oil Platforms, which launched today on Hornraiser, a University of Texas- sponsored crowd funding platform. 

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Mega Grower Color Spot Nursery to Consider Growing Clean, Chemical-free Milkweed

Color Spot Nursery, one of the top national wholesale growers in the country, said this week they will explore heeding the call for clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweed plants.   The company said they are considering growing select Asclepias species, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, WITHOUT any systemic pesticides.  Thanks to Craig the Butterflyman for the tip.

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

The California-based mega grower, which has seven nursery locations in Texas including one in San Antonio, said they were responding to their customers, which include Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and hundreds of independent nurseries across the country. Color Spot does not sell directly to the public.

“Our customers got in trouble with the community,” said Kevin Grossberndt, Commercial Sales Manager for the Southwest Division of Color Spot.   “We all learned a lesson.”

Gorssberndt said Color Spot is well aware of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts’ dismay at buying milkweeds to feed hungry Monarch caterpillars, and being misinformed by retail nursery staff that milkweed plants had not been sprayed with systemic pesticides.

After customers purchased milkweed plants from local nurseries and later placed their caterpillars on them to feed on the milkweed leaves, the caterpillars perished within hours.   That’s because large growers like Color Spot often spray the plants with systemic pesticides early in the year and the poisons used can linger for many months.  The phenomenon has been well documented on these webpages.  We call it Desperately Seeking Milkweed syndrome.

Kevin Grossberndt Colorspot

Kevin Grossberndt stands in a quanset hut of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed at Colorspot Nursery in western San Antonio. The company is exploring cultivation of chemical free milkweeds. –PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Bernhardt, trained as a horticulturist, said Color Spot is considering which species to plant and is likely to go with Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and Butterfly weed, Aslcepias tuberosa.

The Texas Butterfly Ranch and our hydroponic milkweed growing partner Local Sprout made a pitch to Bernhardt to consider cultivating Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, since it is relatively easy-to-grow, a great nectar and host plant and prolific pink bloomer native to the area.  Most native Texas milkweed species are famously persnickety to grow. Swamp milkweed is not.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch milkweed guide for more info.

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in via email, suggesting that Color Spot might try Green Antelope Horn milkweed, Asclepias viridis.  “Viridis is probably the second most important plant on the Monarch’s menu,” Dr. Taylor said.  “It’s the main host for first generation Monarchs. It’s also the most abundant of the Texas milkweeds and survives in pastures quite well.”

Which is absolutely true, but it’s famously challenging to grow from pots and transplants.

“Texas is too dry and hot for syriaca,” Taylor added.

During a tour of Color Spot’s 400-acre growing facility in western San Antonio near Lackland Airforce base, Grossberndt described the special challenges commercial growers will face in growing chemical-free milkweed.

As we all know, milkweed is an aphid magnet, and many people will not buy plants with aphids on them.   Traditionally, Color Spot deals with aphids and other pests via pesticides in order to deliver pristine plants to retail outlets.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Aphids and milkweed have a symbiotic relationship. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With labor one of their highest costs, hand removal of aphids may not be practical.    Color Spot already uses robots to move plants around.   The R2D2-like machines rearranged a plot of potted rose bushes as we all watched in amazement.  But since its doubtful that an aphid-squishing robot will be developed anytime soon, Color Spot will have to be resourceful.

“We might be able to do it with a soap knock-down or possibly explore using beneficials like ladybugs or parasitoid wasps,” said Grossberndt. “We’ll have to see.”

Video by Mitchell Hagney

Dr. Taylor also recommended beneficial insects.  “We are happy to recommend various biological control agents. They seem pricey until you see how effective they are but the grower has to have personnel that is alert to the build-up of pests so that the biologicals can be deployed effectively,” he said.    Grossberndt agreed that training of personnel, especially Color Spot’s technology services team, would have to be part of the plan.

Since the nursery typically sprays ornamental and other inventory with systemic pesticides, the growhouse would also need to be strategically placed out of any possible wind drift and would require polyurethane sides, versus less expensive shade cloth or plastic to assure no chemicals entered the clean zone.

Milkweed at Color Spot Nursery

To be sprayed or not to be sprayed? Milkweed plants at Color Spot Nursery. Kevin Gorssberndt is hoping the nursery can figure out a way to produce lots of milkweed without chemicals. Photo by Mitchell Hagney

Grossberndt showed us one quanset hut filled with a mix of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed–some newly sprouted from seed this year, others cut back and sprouting new growth from last season.   Aphids adorned the underside of the older plants, suggesting the plants had not been sprayed with pesticides.

Yet.

Will they be?  “I’m hoping they won’t,” said Bernhardt.  “These plants were in the middle of other plants, so we’ll just have to see how it goes,” said Bernhardt.  “I’m making the case.”

Grossberndt suggested that Color Spot might have some clean plants on the market by late summer or early fall–hopefully in time for the fall migration when those of us who raise Monarchs often run out of milkweed for those butterflies that break their diapause and reproduce here.  ” I can’t really guarantee a timeline,” said Grossberndt.

P.S. Have you taken our What Kind of Milkweed Survey?   Help us convince Color Spot and other commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries.  Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey.  GRACIAS!

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Q & A: Dr. Lincoln Brower talks Ethics, Endangered Species, Milkweed and Monarchs

At 83, Dr. Lincoln P. Brower has studied Monarch butterflies longer than anyone on the planet. He first became enamored of butterflies as a five-year-old in New Jersey and later

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

by Monarchs when he learned they don’t taste good to predators. His famous  “Barfing Bluejay” photo, below, proved their unpleasant taste to predators and always gets a chuckle when I share it in presentations.

Brower followed his passion and turned his attention to Monarch biology as a grad student at Yale in 1954. He has visited the roosting sites in Mexico more than 50 times since his first trip in 1977–15 years BEFORE Dr. Chip Taylor, the other grandpa of the Monarch community, started the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging program, Monarch Watch, in 1992.

So it’s no surprise that after a lifetime invested in the dramatic orange-and-black butterflies, Brower takes Monarchs personally. When he recently lent his name to the petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), few people were surprised. NOTE: The period to join 306 others who have commented on the petition closes March 1, 2015.

Barfing Bluejay

Dr. Brower’s famous “Barfing Bluejay” photo of a bird wretching after eating Monarchs, proved Monarchs don’t tast good. Photo courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Brower graced the Texas Butterfly Ranch with a visit back in October of 2011 when he toured the Texas Hill Country during the peak of the historic Texas drought.

The man is amazing. Tromping across the limestone watershed, butterfly net in hand, we tagged dozens of butterflies that day for a study he was doing.  Between net swoops, Brower taught me how to identify male from female Monarchs without having
to open up their wings, a trick I still use today.

Brower can be a purist.  He’s said that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, should only be planted in a laboratory or controlled environment because it might spread disease in Monarchs–a directive he recently amended. Now he advises the Monarchs’ favorite host plant be planted no further north than Orlando, Florida. Brower also called the recent 70% increase in Monarch numbers “catastrophic.” “That change is trivial,” said Brower. “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

Since the petition was submitted, much attention has been focused on our favorite migrating insects, who’s “canary in the corn field” status makes them pollinator decline’s apt and timely poster child. Climate change, overzealous pesticide use, genetically modified crops and general human domination of the planet all play their role in challenging Monarch butterflies and the entire food web.

Awareness of these critical issues is fundamental to addressing them and the ESA petition has raised unprecedented awareness. Some of us may disagree that ESA status for Monarchs is the best tool for the job, but it’s impossible to not recognize how the petition has served to raise the profile of Monarch butterfly and pollinator decline. So thanks to Brower and the petitioners for creating needed drama.

We recently chatted with Dr. Brower, who currently serves as Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology Emeritus at the University of Florida and Research Professor of Biology at Sweet Briar College. The conversation migrated from email to phone and back. Here, in his words, is how he sees the current landscape.

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 201?.  Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 2007, one of more than 50 trips he’s made to the roosting sites. Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Q. Recent events, including your participation in filing a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, have brought unprecedented attention to the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration.    Was this the honest intent of filing the petition–to bring attention to the situation rather than actually list it?  Or do you still believe that listing the insect as endangered is the appropriate approach to conservation?

Brower: Those involved in writing the petition had, I think, two goals:  One, to raise public and government awareness; and two, to generate funding of varied mitigation programs, private and public.

Q.  Do you still believe that listing the Monarch butterfly is the best option or have you changed your mind?

Brower: I did when I signed onto the petition and the evidence I have seen so far seems to be supporting that contention. I think we will have to wait and see what happens. It is possible that nothing we can do will preserve the Monarch’s migration and overwintering biology spectacle.

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

Citizen scientists like Catalina Trail were instrumental in pieceing together the mysteries of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Q. If the Monarch becomes listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and milkweed and physical contact with Monarch butterflies will likely be controlled, do you share concerns about the disenfranchisement of the citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts that have for decades been instrumental in unraveling the mystery of their migration?

Brower:  Appendix B page 162 of the petition is worded in confusing legalese but states that citizen scientists’ participation and conservation efforts will not be restricted. I have recommended that the stated limit of ten butterflies per person be raised to 100.

Q. Recent studies link Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to increases of OE in Monarchs. If other species of milkweed–Swamp or Common, for example–had been the species widely cultivated and made available commercially to gardeners, would we be having the same issues with those plants?

Brower: Curassavica likely would not normally have entered Texas from Mexico in the past or future even with global warming. It does not tolerate desert conditions in its natural geographic distribution. As I have stated elsewhere, I think it is a mistake to plant it north of the City of Orlando, Florida latitude in the US.

The recent paper by Satterfiled, et al, is relevant. Propagation of locally occurring native milkweeds and planting them widely in gardens along roads, etc., is what should be done.  The Monarch community needs to jump on this bandwagon and influence plant nurseries to do this for their sales. Bring everyone together to do the best we can to increase native milkweed habitat.

Got milkweed?

Tropical milkweed is technically not native but the most widely available species of Monarch host plant. Native milkweeds are best.

Q.  Is it at all arrogant of us, the human species, to insist that the Monarch migration continue as climate change, human impacts and other factors conspire to make it possible for Monarch butterflies to continue their life cycles and reproduce without migrating 3,000 miles? And if the need to migrate changes or no longer exists, who are we to say that it should continue? (I wonder what a Monarch butterfly would say if we gave them a choice of migrating or not?)

Brower: As we discussed at length, these are ethical questions. Should we try and preserve natural phenomena such as the Monarch migration? Analogously, should we try and save pandas, polar bears, endangered plants. etc.

Turn the question around: is it ethical to let these things go extinct when we have the ability to prevent that from happening? Are people the only creatures with a right to rich and natural lives on this planet?

You know my answer, it is dead wrong not to try to prevent loss of natural species and what they do from bacteria to humans. If rabies were to take over, the view of letting it be would mean the end of dogs. How can anyone even think that is tolerable. I feel the same way about the Monarch…In addition, preserving it is symbolically important:  it is the “canary in the corn field” telling us something very broad and serious is wrong with managing our planet.

Q:  Dr. Brower, I agree with you regarding species going extinct, however we are talking about the migration.  Few folks believe the Monarch butterfly will become extinct.  Do you make a distinction that some behaviours outlive their usefulness–such as, perhaps, the Monarch migration?

Brower: My colleagues and I have referred to the Monarch migration/overwintering behavior as an endangered biological phenomenon. My thesis above also applies exactly to this category of biodiversity.

Should we work to restore the bison migrations or just keep them in a few zoos and confined pastures? What about the bamboo forests of China: let them and the panda inhabitants be destroyed while keeping a few panda breeding programs going to make sure zoos are profitable? Bioethics again.

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Monarch Butterfly Inches Toward “Threatened” Status under Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced this week it will conduct a status review to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The conservation arm of the U.S. government has been considering the matter ever since the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior on August 26.  Read the press release.

Soon to be "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act?  --Photo by Monika Maeckle

Soon to be “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act? –Photo by Monika Maeckle

The petition caused quite a flutter in the Monarch butterfly community over the past few months.   Listservs and social media outlets mulled the possibilities inherent in a threatened status listing.   Hundreds of scientists and enthusiasts signed letters and petitions of support, yet others took issue with the 159-page petition.

Professional butterfly breeders and some citizen scientists (including yours truly) expressed concerns about the petition’s final sentence, which described how people like me and you will only be allowed to raise 10 or fewer Monarchs per year–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

If the Monarch butterfly is declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, will it be illegal to take this boy home and get him to the next stage?   Photo by Monika Maeckle

If the Monarch butterfly is declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, will it be illegal to take this boy home and get him to the next stage? –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Commercial butterfly breeders, who supply the exhibition, natural history, education, and special event businesses with butterfly stock, strongly objected to the petition, suggesting it could jeopardize their businesses.  At its core, the petition does strike at the heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic, widely embraced, and understood–the crowdsourcing utilized to unravel its mysterious migration and the resulting groundswell of interest in conserving it.

Reactions to the move toward threatened status were mixed.

“Could have gone either way,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that tags thousands of Monarch butterflies each year. “This finding just means it advances to the review stage and these reviews can be repeated year after year after year for decades. If the current population is as large as I think it is and there is no catastrophic mortality in Mexico this winter, support for the petition could fade. Successful large scale restoration efforts with lots of attendant publicity could also weaken the case for threatened status.” he added.  Taylor has stated his opposition to the petition, calling for an apolitical approach and expressing concerns about landowner backlash if milkweed–the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–is declared critical habitat.

xerceslogo“We are extremely pleased that the federal agency in charge of protecting our nation’s wildlife has recognized the dire situation of the Monarch,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director of the Xerces Society, one of the organizations that submitted the petition. “Protection as a threatened species will enable extensive Monarch habitat recovery on both public and private land,” she added.

Tierra Curry, a senior  scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity echoed those sentiments in this statement posted on the organization’s website:  “The Endangered Species Act is the most powerful tool available to save Monarchs so I’m really happy these amazing butterflies are a step closer to the protection they so desperately need.”

Commercial butterfly breeders were not so thrilled.

ibba“The IBBA does not believe that a status of threatened is appropriate or warranted at this time for the Monarch butterfly,” said the International Butterfly Breeder’s Association president Kathy Marshburn in response to the news. She added that habitat conservation is necessary to support and promote the survival of the Monarch and the IBBA will continue to support these efforts.

The Association For Butterflies, a butterfly education and advocacy group for farmers and hobbyists, issued the following statement:   “The Association for Butterflies is saddened to hear that Fish and Wildlife has decided to move ahead with the process of listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened species. There is clear evidence that the butterfly itself is not threatened, only the migration phenomenon. Monarch Watch and other organizations are on the right track to help increase the migration numbers by encouraging private citizens and others to plant milkweed, which AFB will continue to support as we work towards helping all pollinators.”

Endangered Species Act Process

This is the process. We are entering the second blue bubble from the top. Stay tuned. –Courtesy graphic

So what happens next?

The USFWS will continue to review information, including public comments submitted in the next 60 days. Stakeholders and organizations have two months to express concerns and get them on the public record.

After two-months of public comment, the petition will be considered and evaluated until August 26, 2015 (12 months from the initial filing of the petition) then result in one of the following:

1) USFWS proposes the Monarch for listing
2) USFWS declines to list the Monarch
3) USFWS decides that listing is warranted but precluded by higher priorities, and the Monarch then would be added to a waitlist of candidate species.

 

Government regulation comment page

Let your voice be heard! Starting tomorrow, post comments at the page above. Just click on the picture above and Insert docket #FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056 into the search box.

“The public is key right now,” said Vanessa C. Kauffman, spokesperson for USFWS.  “We value their input during the status review period.”

So gather your thoughts for posting to the public record, and let your voice be heard.   The notice will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, December 31, 2014, and the public comment period will end March 2, 2015.   Starting tomorrow, you can view the notice and submit information by visiting www.regulations.gov and typing docket number FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056 into the search box.

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