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?

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San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival a roaring success

Over three days and three events October 20 – 22, thousands of people came together online and in person to celebrate the Monarch butterfly migration during peak Monarch migration to make San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival a roaring success.

Kids scramble to get an up close look at Monarch butterflies. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Kids scramble to get an up close look at Monarch butterflies. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Or as we say in Spanish, un gran éxito.

One could argue (and I will) that we should expect nothing less from the country’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so named by the National Wildlife Federation last December.

The Festival kicked off on Thursday, October 20 with the Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca! art show and celebration at the Mexican Cultural Institute in downtown San Antonio.

One of designers' Pineda Covalín's delectable Monarch butterfly gowns. Photo by Alex Holler

One of designers’ Pineda Covalín’s delectable Monarch butterfly gowns. Photo by Alex Holler

Recently arrived director Mónica del Arenal was so enthusiastic about the idea of a Monarch butterfly project when approached in August that within hours she had secured a commitment from Mexican nature photographer Ignacio Arcas to exhibit his work featuring the roosting sites in Michoacán.

Soon thereafter, del Arenal had a commitment from Pineda Covalín, Mexican fashion designers based in Mexico City who have an entire line of haute couture featuring textiles that show off the Monarch butterfly.  The design company committed to making their permanent collection available for the exhibit. And then Mexican artist David Romero agreed to “bring the roost to San Antonio” by creating an installation at the Institute that replicates the roosting sites.

Romero arrived early in the week to install thousands of laser cut butterflies onto the light fixtures illuminating the staircase at the Institute. The effect is a dreamy interpretation of what many will never have the chance to see.  The exhibit will be on display at the Institute until January 1.

Artist David Romero "brings the roost" to San Antonio. Photo by Rocio Guenther, Rivard Report

Artist David Romero “brings the roost” to San Antonio. Photo by Rocio Guenther, Rivard Report

About 100 people attended the opening reception, which included a discussion by Mexican Forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, Arcas and myself.  Read a full account of the reception written by Rocio Guenther of the Rivard Report.

On Friday, October 21, we hosted our symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. All 144 seats sold out.

Savvy moderator Dan Goodgame led the panel–an equal mix of scientists and citizen scientists who represented all three countries touched by the butterflies’ unique migration. The hour-and-a-half discussion ended with questions from the audience at the intimate Pearl Studio.

Joining us for the symposium: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, rock star climate change expert from Texas Tech University who had just returned from a visit to the White House where Leonardo DiCaprio asked her for her autograph; Cathy Downs, education outreach

Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. L-R, Monika Maeckle, Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, Cathy Downs, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

specialist  from Monarch Watch; Mexican Forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero who had been visiting Trinity University as a guest professor in ecological sciences; and myself, standing in for Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975, who was unable to attend due to illness.

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.” The entire conversation will be made available online in the next week or two. Until then, here’s a great wrap up by Mitchell Hagney of the Rivard Report.

Finally, on Saturday, October 22, our Festival proper took place. Somewhere between 5-7,000 people joined us at the Pearl, a mixed used development lauded for its sense of place and respect for history on the banks of the San Antonio River. The award-winning development lived a past life as the Pearl Brewery, and owners have painstakingly conserved its character.

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People showed up with their wings on to participate in the People for Pollinators parade, led by the Earn-a-Bike Coop‘s Pedaling Pollinators. Participants ambled through the Pearl grounds as the Mariachi de Corazón San Antonio marched to a festive beat, leading the crowd under blue skies and mild temperatures.

Hundreds of butteflies were released at 10:30 and noon. After brief remarks explaining the migration and tagging program, docents and young volunteers led the contained butterflies into a courtyard. After a bilingual countdown–Uno, dos tres…three, two, one–the butterflies were released as musician Adam Tutor serenaded them with his saxophone and a song composed specifically for the occasion, Fly Away, sung by Celeste Thomas.

Throughout the morning, trained butterfly docents moved through the crowd, providing one-on-one demonstrations of how to tag a Monarch butterfly, accompanied by explanations of why we do so. All in all, 559 butterflies were tagged–400 from two mass releases, and 159 in one-on-one tagging demos by our docents.

chrysalis TBG partners

A couple attending the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival walk under the chrysalis created by TBG Partners. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Educational partners offered engaging tables with displays of food made possible by pollinators (Green Spaces Alliance), a Monarch Jeopardy Quiz (National Wildlife Federation), live caterpillars and butterflies courtesy of Monarch Joint Venture, education about and sales of native pollinator plants (Bexar County Master Gardeners and Native Plant Society), a game featuring the function of the proboscis (San Antonio Botanical Garden), a live bee hive (Alamo Area Beekeepers), Pollinator Palooza game (San Antonio River Authority), Monarch tagging and free milkweed seeds (San Antonio Zoo)–even a pollinator kite-building exercise organized by the good folks at the Bridge Projects.  Friends of the San Antonio Natural Areas, HEB, Rivard Report, and the San Antoino Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also offered education and entertainment, as well of lots of free stuff.

Our friends from TBG Partners even built triple whammy sculptures that displayed the life cycle in three installations, from egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis to butterfly.

Monarch butterfly helps recurit signers for a petition to stop the copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico. Photo by Alex Holler

Monarch butterfly helps recruit signers for a petition to stop the copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico. Photo by Alex Holler

At the Texas Butterfly Ranch booth, we sold Festival bandanas and tshirts, while inviting people to sign a petition assembled by the Endangered Species Coalition. The  petition encourages the Mexican government to stop the activation of a copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sanctuaries. The butterfly pictured at right helped recruit signers, which numbered 591 by the time we finished.

Those who signed had their name enlisted in a drawing to win a “caterpillar condo” stocked with a second instar Monarch caterpillar, a chrysalis, and two tags.  Natalia Rojas, a recent transplant from Chicago who now lives in San Antonio, went home with the prize.

Natalia Rojas

Natalia Rojas won the drawing for the caterpillar condo. Thanks to the 591 folks who signed the petition. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We feel pretty good about our first Festival and are contemplating doing it next year. If you attended, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We want to make it even better and appreciate your input. Here’s the link. To those who already took the survey, thank you!

To all our education partners, volunteers and sponsors, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT and we hope to see you next year.

thanks

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Monarch migration update: winds from south, hot temps stall butterflies on Llano River

Hundreds of Monarch butterflies paused in the Texas Hill Country this weekend as winds from the south and temperatures in the 90s prevented the migrating insects from continuing their journey south.

Monarchs pecan trees wind

Small clusters of six-12 Monarch butterflies battled the wind and 90-degree temperatures along the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Most late season nectar plants had passed their peak, with much of the Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, and Goldenrod, Solidago altissima, two late season nectar favorites, starting to go to seed. Cowpen daisies, Verbesina enceliodes, situated in shady spots produced lush, new blooms, offering the stymied flyers a fuel stop.

Coupon Daisy pecan tree Monarch butterfly

Patches of Cowpen Daisy offered fuel stops for migrating Monarch butterflies in the shade of Llano River pecan trees. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the river banks, Swamp milkweed, Asclepius incarnata, host plant for Monarchs and Queens, showed fresh foliage for late season caterpillars, providing plenty of host plant for those Monarchs who chose to ditch the migration and reproduce locally.

David Berman

David Berman, PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, is studying late generation Monarch butterflies and parasitoids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

David Berman, PhD candidate in the integrative biology program at Oklahoma State University, made the second of three scheduled visits to the ranch this weekend.

TAchinid fly larvae

Eeew.Monarch caterpillar killed by the parasitoid Tachinid fly larvae. Those red “pills” are the pupae of the fly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Berman is gathering data for a study funded by the Texas State Comptroller’s Office and other organizations, looking at the impacts of parasitoids and fifth generation Monarch butterflies on the migrating Monarch population.

In the back of his white Durango, Berman carried an entire ice chest filled with dead Monarch and Queen caterpillars collected in Texas and infected with Tachinid flies. The gross fly has a science fiction-like life cycle: it deposits its eggs on Monarchs and other caterpillars, which then hatch inside the caterpillar and eat it from the inside out.

Second instar Monarch caterpillar

Second instar Monarch caterpillar on the Llano River, October 16, 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Third install

Third instar Monarch caterpillar, Llano River, October 16, 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Fifth instalr

Ready to bust his stripes. Fifth instar Monarch caterpillar, October 16, 2016 on Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here along the Llano, known as the “last wild river” in Texas, dozens of Monarch butterfly caterpillars in all stages of development —eggs, caterpillars and adult butterflies in migrating mode—supplied plenty of data for his study.

“I’d have to agree with Dr. Chip Taylor that the migration will be late and long this year,” said Berman.

Monika on Llano tagging

Frustrating tagging outing on the Llano River. Photo by Victoria Echeverri

A small tagging team attempted to net the smaller-than-usual clusters of six-10 butterflies we usually encounter during peak Monarch season.

Victoria tagging

Victoria Echeverri of San Antonio takes her best shot at a cluster of Monarchs waiting out the wind on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

High temperatures in the low nineties and winds out of the south gusting at 29 mph thwarted the butterflies directional flight south. They also seemed more skittish than usual, clinging to pecan limbs close to the limestone escarpment that provides a scenic backdrop to our river bottom.

Every time they left a pecan limb or cedar branch to continue their travels, a rush of wind would push them back. The wind made netting the creatures more challenging than usual,  as the slightest pivot of the Monarch’s wings or body would allow them to take a dramatic turn and avert our swoops.  A full day on the river only netted 58 tagged, compared to three times that many last year.

Monarch pecan

Pecan nuts made a convenient rest stop on the Llano River for migrating Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As the sun set on a mid October day that called for shorts and t-shirts instead of the usual jeans and long sleeves, we all wondered: is this the new normal? Rather than dramatic dense clusters of hundreds or thousands of butterflies roosting a few nights as in peak seasons past, maybe we’ll be seeing smaller groups over many weeks.

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Butterfly bonanza: Monarch tagged in Oklahoma netted on Llano River in Texas

A male Monarch butterfly, tag number WMX658, paused Saturday morning October 1 around 11 AM on a fresh Frostweed bloom along the Llano River. Netted and retrieved, the faded Monarch was photographed, then released to set sail for his flight to Mexico.

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Justin Roach’s WMX658 male Monarch, 9/22 in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Photo by Justin Roach

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About 350 miles and nine days later, WMX658  was netted on the Llano River near London, Texas. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to the miracles of social media and the tight-knit Monarch butterfly community, it soon became apparent that Mr. WMX658 was tagged at the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oklahoma on September 22 about 10:30 AM by Justin Roach, wildlife biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service refuge there.

Roach said by phone that WMX658 was one of 15 butterflies tagged that day. About 350 miles later, I netted the butterfly in Kimble County near London, Texas.

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Justin Roach, wildlife biologist at the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oklahoma tagging Monarchs in early September. Photo by Joanne Ryan

That means WMX658 traveled about 44 miles per day, an impressive clip, to reach our nectar patch along the Llano. Hopefully, he’ll have fueled up enough in Texas to carry him the remaining 920 miles to the overwintering roosts in Mexico.

“It seems the migration is more consistent this year than I’ve ever seen. Every day there’s been a few,” said Roach, who usually tags between 100-200 butterflies annually. The day WMX658 was tagged, butterflies were nectaring on Smartweed, a member of the Polygonum family.  Roach said a school outing was planned for that Thursday, but somehow the kids couldn’t make it so he just tagged with staff.

WMX658 flew about 350 miles since September 22, arriving along the Llano River on October 1. Graphic via Google

WMX658 left  Tishomingo,Oklahoma on September 22, arriving nine days later 350 miles south on the Llano River. Graphic via Google

Having tagged about 1,000 Monarchs since 1997, Roach has had two recoveries in Mexico, where the butterflies are typically found on the forest floor after having made the full trip to Michoacán. This was the first time someone found a Monarch he had tagged and reported it live.

It was a first for me as well. In 11 years of tagging more than 3,000 Monarch butterflies with 29 recoveries, I had never netted a Monarch tagged elsewhere.

This poor male was too ragged to tag. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This poor male was too ragged to tag. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Oklahoma Monarch was just one of about two dozen spotted and 11 tagged on the Llano this weekend–all males. Just a week prior, on September 26, more than five inches of rain fell in the Texas Hill Country and parts of South Texas. The storm system left the landscape thoroughly drenched and primed for sustaining late season blooms for peak migration visitors later this month.

Many Swamp milkweed stands, Asclepius incarnata, that exhibited packs of aphids, milkweed beetles and bugs just two weeks ago, were now washed clean, losing lower milkweed leaves to “drowning” by water levels that rose 4 – 6 feet. Seedpods have replaced the pink flowers while other late season bloomers drew literally thousands of butterflies.

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                                       --all photos by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, was a favorite draw for Queens, Spangled, Gulf and other fritillaries, Giant, Pipevine and Eastern Swallowtails, skippers, snouts, sulphurs–everyone swarmed to the nectar fest that the recent weather pattern has made possible. And the wilted, yellowed, washed out milkweed leaves didn’t stop Monarchs and Queens from laying their eggs on remaining healthy foliage. At least one more hatch will occur before peak migration arrives the last two weeks of October.

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River rises six feet and drowns your host plant? No problem. Monarchs and Queens find the good foliage to deposit their eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The snout-nosed butterfly invasion that hit us two weeks ago seems to bode well for butterflies in general. While the snouts were not quite as obvious this weekend at the ranch, they made a repeat–even exaggerated appearance in San Antonio midweek.

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The snouts returned to invade downtown San Antonio again last week. The weather has been perfect for butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The small, orange-and-black brushfooted butterflies made headlines in early September because of their staggering presence. Just last Thursday, on September 29, literally millions of the small orange and black flyers filled the skies of downtown San Antonio, clogging car grills, spattering windshields, and confusing many who thought they were Monarchs.

“I looked outside and it was like a butterfly highway,” said Rebecca Guererro, a stylist at Mint Salon in downtown San Antonio on Thursday.

Monarchs have begun showing up in steady trickles in these parts just in the last week. The storied migrants were pushed south by a recent cold front and the dry-wet weather has set the stage for a bounty of nectar.

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

A kayak tour of the Llano revealed no caterpillars this trip, although plenty of Queen and Monarch eggs were present on the mud-coated Swamp milkweeds that bowed to the floodwaters which rose about six feet.

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch issued a migration update on September 26 predicting a late migration this year.

“A while back I pointed out the probability that the migration would be late and long this year. That is likely to be the case,” said Taylor, pointing to hot weather as the cause. “Last week was a scorcher through much of the midwest with temperatures in the 90s and high-80s over a broad area. The migration advances slowly, if at all, under these conditions. The ideal temperatures for the migrants are in the 70s and 60s,” he said.

The Journey North website reported streams of Monarchs heading south through the central and eastern flyways. The site attributed the movement to a cold front that “dropped down from the north and finally ended the unseasonably hot weather — with associated south winds — that have been holding the butterflies back,” wrote Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, in last week’s Thursday migration newsletter. Howard cited peak flights along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains over the weekend as “the first strong pulse in the Eastern Flyway.”

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McAllen, Texas becomes second NWF Monarch Butterfly Champion City

There’s a new Monarch Butterfly Champion City in the Lone Star State: McAllen.

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Tattered Monarch on Purple Mistflower at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. Photo courtesy of National Butterfly Center

For the past 10 months, San Antonio ranked as the only National Wildlife Federation  (NWF) Monarch Butterfly Champion City.  San Antonio Mayor Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last December, committing to all 24 action items recommended in the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

But that unique status is now behind us. Last week, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, citing San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor as “an inspiration,” became the second mayor in the country to step up to the plate and make pollinators a hometown priority.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has made pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has made pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Darling made the announcement at the September McAllen City Commission Meeting. Darling also declared Sept. 12 “Mayor’s Monarch Pledge Day in the City of McAllen.”

“Mayor Darling has made a major commitment to help save this iconic, declining species in a city that sits right in the middle of the Monarch butterflies’ migratory flyway,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, National Wildlife Federation senior director of community wildlife, in response to the news.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley’s McAllen-Edinburg-Mission triangle has long been a place with much wildlife diversity due to its location at the intersection of myriad ecosystems that host more than 300 species of butterflies and 520 species of birds.

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McAllen Mayor Jim Darling announces McAllen’s status as a Monarch Butterfly Champion City. Briana Deleon, Quinta Mazatlan Volunteer of the Year, dons her wings to commemorate the occasion. Photo courtesy of the McAllen Mayor’s Office.

Bird- and butterfly-viewing destinations such as Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the National Butterfly Center, the annual Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission, and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County draw nature lovers from all over. The City of McAllen attributes an annual $460 million in eco-tourism to its “natural beauty and sunny and temperate year-round climate,” according to a press release.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor welcomed McAllen to the elite club of NWF Monarch Champion Cites.

“Like us, McAllen obviously understands the significance of helping protect and promote our State Insect,” Taylor said. “I’d like to issue a challenge for all other mayors in Texas to sign the pledge and help make us the first Monarch Champion State in the U.S.”

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In an email exchange, Darling gave special credit to Colleen Hook, director of Quinta Mazatlan, a McAllen wildlife sanctuary that promotes knowledge about birds, plants, and environmental stewardship in South Texas, for “leading the effort for the Mayor.” Hook became aware of the challenge through press coverage of San Antonio’s pledge, the Mayor’s office stated via email.

“We have a big responsibility in South Texas to enhance the migratory ‘Texas Funnel’ used by butterflies, birds and many other creatures of the land,” said Hook.

Hook refers to the remarkable  “Texas funnel,”the  passage through which Monarch  butterflies migrate coming and going  each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City.

Monarch migrate through Texas coming and going through the Texas Funnel. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Monarchs migrate from Mexico to Canada and back through the ‘Texas Funnel.’ Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

“We welcome anybody else trying to help Monarchs,” said North American Butterfly Association President Jeffrey Glassberg, who also is founder of the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission. The NBC was recently featured in a Texas Monthly article titled “Mission’s Quest to Become the Butterfly Capital of the World.”

Status as a Monarch Butterfly Champion City doesn’t come easy. Municipalities must agree to adopt all 24 specific actions suggested by the NWF to support the declining Monarch butterfly migration and other pollinator habitat.

Participation in the pledge requires at a minimum for Mayors to execute three of the 24 items; to be in the “leadership circle” they must commit to eight; to become a Monarch Champion, they must do all 24. Actions range from citizen science projects and installing a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, to hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

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Since the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge was launched in September of last year, 190 entities across North America have committed to create habitat and encourage their citizens to do the same.

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically– by 80% from the 21-year average across North America. Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use, illegal logging in Mexico, and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is currently under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two tagged Monarchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Save the date: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio Oct. 20-22

Mark your calendars, butterfly and pollinator fans. San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at Pearl will take place October 20 – 22 this fall during peak Monarch butterfly migration week. Join us for three fun days of events to celebrate the majesty and magic of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.butterflyfest_wordpressThursday, Oct. 20th, 6 PM – 8 PM: Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca! at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano in HemisFair Park. FREE ADMISSION. Mexican artist Ignacio Arcas presents “Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca!,” a nature photography exhibit of Monarchs’ roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico. Arcas will be present to discuss his artwork, and Mexican forester and symposium panelist Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero from Michoacán will join us to chat with the audience about the Monarch migration.  

Silk scarves by Piñeda- Covalent. Courtesy photo.Textile designer Pineda-Covalín will present a collection of their Monarch butterfly inspired wares, and an installation by artist David J. Romero replicating the Monarch butterfly roosting sites will welcome guests to the Instituto.

Sponsored by the Instituto Cultural Mexicano and Texas Butterfly Ranch

 

Friday, October 21st, 6 PM – 8 PM: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium at the Pearl Studio. $10; LIMITED SEATING. Tickets are now on sale here.

Dan Goodgame, VP of Corporate Communications for Rackspace, will moderate a timely discussion with the distinguished panelists listed below.

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, a forester from Michoacán, Mexico, who proposes moving the Monarchs’ roosting sites higher up the mountain to save them from the impacts of climate change.

 

 

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.Catalina Trail “discovered” the Monarch roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico after years of searching as a citizen scientist. Trail, from Morelia, graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1976 as a 25-year-old mexicana. She and her then husband Kenneth Brugger led scientists to the site where the Monarchs roost, and the news rocked the butterfly world. She currently lives in Austin.
UPDATE: Catalina Trail will not be able to attend due to health matters. Monika Maeckle, founder of the Texas Butterfly Ranch, will take her place as a panelist at the symposium.

 

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Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian, climate change expert, and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She holds a Ph.D in atmospheric science and coauthored the book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions with her husband, Andrew Farley.

 

cathyCathy Downs, a conservation specialist for Monarch Watch based in Comfort, Texas, teaches hundreds of children and adults each year about the magic and science of the Monarch butterfly migration.

 

 

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Dan Goodgame, moderator, is vice-president for executive communications at Rackspace, a global leader in cloud computing. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author, Goodgame describes himself as a “recovering journalist.” He worked as a top editor at TIME and FORTUNE, a White House correspondent, and a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Europe.

 

Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch.

Saturday, October 22nd, 9 AM – 1 PM: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. FREE ADMISSION.

Join us as we honor Monarchs and other pollinators everywhere. The People for Pollinators Parade, lead by San Antonio’s Pedaling Pollinators and Earn-A-Bike Coop, kicks off the festivities at 9:30 AM with custom built bikes that resemble butterflies. COSTUMES ENCOURAGED.

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

Two Monarch butterfly releases will be held at 10:30AM and 12PM. Throughout the event, butterfly docents will hold demonstrations on How and Why to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.

The Pearl Farmer’s Market will include Monarch- and pollinator-themed food and drinks, Monarch Jeopardy, native plant sales and more.

Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch

Special thanks to our sponsors and to Mayor Ivy Taylor for signing the National Wildlife Federation Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Robert Coulson, Texas A&M University

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

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

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

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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