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

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

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

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

Dr. Cuahetemoc Saenz-Romero --Courtesy photo

Dr. Cuahetemoc Saenz-Romero –Courtesy photo

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

Confirmed speakers include Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a PhD in forestry from Michoacán, Mexico. Dr. Sáenz-Romero has proposed moving the forest where the Monarch butterflies roost 2,000 feet higher in elevation since changing climate suggests that within 20 years, the forest will no longer be able to survive increased temperatures.

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

Catalina Trail on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

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

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

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

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

Pedaling Pollinators

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarchs Michoacán 2012

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

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

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Dr. Robert Coulson, Texas A&M University

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

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

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

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESAprocess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the CBD’s press release.

USFWS viewed the settlement as a pragmatic move.

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

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

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Mexico, Canada and Obama recommit to conserving Monarch butterfly migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Obama called Monarchs “spectacular.”

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

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Whitehouse press office:

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

Read the White House press release.

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

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

Common milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purple coneflower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roosting sites

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

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

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

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

Grupo Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

Copper mining at the Monarch roosting sites?

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

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

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

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

tresamigos

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

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

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

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

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

Sign the petition today.

Click on the link and sign the petition today.

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

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

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

Sign the petition here.
 

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New study: nectar plants more important than milkweed for Monarch butterfly migration

A research paper published April 27 in the journal Oikos is causing a stir in the Monarch butterfly world.  The paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the major cause of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration is a lack of milkweed tied to the increased adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in the butterflies’ midwestern breeding grounds.

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

Migrating Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed in the Texas Hill Country, October, 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Anurag Agrawal and his team of researchers at Cornell University tackle this widely held assumption in their recent paper, “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.”  Agrawal suggests that the emphasis on milkweed may be misplaced and that solutions addressing habitat fragmentation, and most interesting and relevant to Texas, late season nectar plants should receive more attention.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase their population or save them from some demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video titled “Beyond milkweed:  Monarchs face habitat, nectar threats.” The video, below, was released in conjunction with the paper.

“Milkweed is probably not the limiting thing for the Monarch population,” he said.  “Perhaps planting milkweed will not improve or increase the populations as much as we thought in the past.”

Calling the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very very gnarly problem,”  Agrawal gave kudos to citizen scientists for their involvement in the study and said more than once that  we must “get the science right.”

“We must identify the key weak points. It is absolutely critical.  If we don’t, we could be investing a lot of effort into conserving a portion of the migration but it may have ultimately no impact conserving the species overall,” he said.

Agrawal and his team matched Monarch butterfly counts made by citizen scientists and others to the different stages of the migration.   After doing so, they found that counts were not down until the end of the migratory cycle, when the butterflies started heading south.

“By the time they get to Mexico, their numbers are plummeting,” said Agrawal, “but at the end of the summer, when they start that migration, their numbers are not down.”

The research underscores the different needs of the species at the different stages of their life cycle.

In early spring, as Monarchs move north through the Texas funnel, they need milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.  They continue to need milkweed through the summer as subsequent generations reproduce as they move north.

But in the fall when the Monarchs are heading south, they don’t need milkweed since they enter their reproductive diapause–that is, a temporary stage in which they postpone sexual activities and save their energy to migrate to Mexico.  At this point, they need water, ample nectar sources, trees or other protection at night for roosting, and connected habitats.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

It’s not just about the milkweed.  Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed in downtown San Antonio, September 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal’s point is well taken.  Immense focus has been devoted on increasing the Monarch butterfly host plant, milkweed.  Milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family, is necessary in the early stages of the migration when the Monarchs are reproductive.  But what about later in the game, when Monarchs are NOT reproductive?  They require nectar to fuel their flight.  Agrawal and his colleagues suggest that late season nectar plants and perhaps interconnected habitats–ie, pollinator corridors–would make their continuous route south more doable.

University of Georgia ecologist Dr. Andy Davis made a similar point last year when he spoke to the Washington Post. Davis challenged the idea of basing the Monarch butterfly population census on counting the number of hectares in Mexico occupied by the migrating creatures each winter.

Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed

Monarchs caterpillars eat only milkweed, but Monarch butterflies will nectar indiscriminately. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“If you were charged with figuring out how many people are participating in the Boston Marathon each year, you wouldn’t count the number of people who cross the finish line,” said Davis.  “For many years we’ve been counting the finishing Monarchs in Mexico….We’ve been doing it backwards.”

What Dr. Agrawal says about nectar plants makes sense, especially for Texas.

Think about it:  as Monarchs migrate south in the fall through the Texas funnel, they are  not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter.  There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

Monarch on duranta

Monarch nectaring on Duranta at Texas Butterfly Ranch urban butterfly garden, downtown San Antonio, November 2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That suggests that in the fall in Texas, there really is no need for milkweed for migratory Monarchs.  In fact, one could argue (and many scientists have) that having milkweed available late in the season will encourage Monarchs to break their diapause and reproduce, thus never arriving in Mexico.  This also suggests what Monarchs DO need in the fall: late season nectar sources.

The point is important and timely, given that millions of dollars in conservation funding and grants are being awarded as we speak. Should those grants and initiatives be focused on cultivating more milkweed or developing more sources and locations for late season nectar plants?

In much of Texas, called “the most important state” to the migration by Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and others, the fall garden trumps the abbreviated spring garden season.  Temperatures climb into triple digits so early here that it’s challenging to grow many fruits, vegetables and flowers until the fall when things cool off.  In such a context, and given the timing of the Monarchs arrival here in the fall, late season perennial blooming plants should be encouraged.   We are well-suited to provide them.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, awaits on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Need ideas?  Try Goldenrod, Frostweed, Autumn sage, Late flowering boneset, Asters, Cowpen daisy in your fall garden if you want to help Monarchs.  In my downtown San Antonio butterfly garden last year, Duranta, sometimes called Brazilian skyflower, was a big draw for Monarchs and other pollinators.  It’s not native, but a well adapted flowering bush–and highly appropriate, fantastic plant.

Monarch Watch offers this super useful list of appropriate nectar plants by season. The Xerces Society also has a guide for useful pollinator friendly plants.  And the Pollinator Partnership offers plant guides for every region in the country.

Scientists will continue this debate.  Dr. Chip Taylor recently took Dr. Agrawal’s paper to task in a rebuttal paper, “Conclusion of No Decline in Summer Monarch Population Not Supported” and Dr. Davis rebutted the rebuttal on his highly educational Monarch science blog.

Meanwhile, those of us in Texas should plan and plant late season bloomers.  Doing so will offer the bonus of providing fuel and sustenance not only for Monarchs but other pollinators.

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Good news! Monarch butterfly population triples

The 2015-2016 Monarch butterfly population census is in and the news is good:   the iconic migrating insect that has become a symbol for climate change and pollinator advocacy in three countries is on the rebound with a three-fold increase in its roosting population in the past year.

Michoacán Monarchs

The Monarch population is on the rebound with a threefold increase over last year. Here they are in Michoacán in March of 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Last year the population occupied 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres) of the Oyamel forest in the mountains of Michoacán that serve as the ancestral roosting site of the storied orange and black creatures.  This year:  4.01 hectares (9.9 acres) are occupied–more than triple last year’s figure, according to the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund.  Scientists calculate the population numbers by measuring the amount of forest occupied by the Monarchs.

monarch-population-figure-monarchwatch-2016

According to Journey North, a citizen science organization that tracks the Monarchs’ and other migrations, this year’s population numbers 200 million monarchs compared to a long-term average of 300 million and a peak of 1 billion.  The organization attributed the increase to ” favorable breeding conditions in summer 2015.”

The butterflies, which migrate each fall to the Mexican mountains after a multi-generation trek through the heartland of the United State’s to Mexico, have been in a perilous decline in recent years.   The 2013-2014 season in particular was frightening:  the entire Monarch population occupied only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) and could have fit into a Walmart store with 30,000 square feet to spare.

The insects made a slight comeback last year, as government officials in all three countries committed to work together to save the unique natural phenomenon.  Research and funding have been pouring into the cause, thanks, in part, to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy issued in May of 2015.

Chincua Journey north

As temperatures rise and the air dries, monarchs move out of their clusters in Michoacán during the day to the delight of sanctuary visitors. Photo via Journey North

Butterfly aficionados far and wide were delighted with the news. “Great progress!! Everyone still needs to do their part to help! We can’t lose these magnificent butterflies!!” wrote Eileen Cotte on Journey North’s Facebook page.

“It certainly is reason for hope following year after year of depressing declines,” wrote Richard Knowles on the DPLEX list, an old school listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados run by citizen science organization Monarch Watch out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. “It almost feels like everyone can give themselves a brief pat on the back before getting back to work.”

Even Monsanto Corporation, often blamed for the butterflies decline because of the indiscriminate pesticide use that results from their genetically modified corn and soybean seed, celebrated the news:  “Good news! Monarch population numbers were up in 2015. With help, they’ll keep increasing.”

We hope so. Let’s keep planting milkweed and nectar plants for all pollinators.

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Lawsuit seeks ESA Monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders

The battle to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act inched forward last week, as the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety announced they will file suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failing to meet a December 26 deadline.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

Will Monarch butterflies be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The intent to file suit was announced in a January 5 press release and will be acted upon in 60 days if no ruling is made.

Those specializing in endangered species issues said such lawsuits are not unusual in the often convoluted listing process. After providing an update to the Texas State Comptroller’s Monarch Butterfly Task Force Working Group in Austin last moth, Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, said such lawsuits at times delay the process and other times speed things up.

David Braun, Principal of Braun & Gresham, a Dripping Springs, Texas-based law firm that works with private landowners and communities on endangered species issues, said, “It’s not unusual, but frankly I think it sometimes slows things down.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX list--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower –photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. LIncoln Brower, who joined with the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety in filing the petition in August of 2014, was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX email list, a listserv of about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

In sharing the news, Dr. Brower pointed out how powerful the petition has been in galvanizing support for Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.  It has stimulated “all sorts of positive national and international actions to help what is an increasingly serious problem,” wrote Brower.

Commercial butterfly breeders, who oppose clauses in the petition that support an end to the commercial breeding and shipping of Monarch butterflies, took the news in stride.

“Lawsuits resulting from an impassioned and hot button issue such as Monarch butterflies come as no surprise,” said Kathy Marshburn, president of the 100-member International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), a trade association for those who make a living breeding and selling butterflies.

The Association for Butterflies, another butterfly breeding interest group of 81 commercial and hobbyist breeders (including me), quickly relayed the news to its membership which provoked a general consensus that “the lawyers” will be the only winners in the saga.

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  In particular, the Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses a special threat. OE thrives in conditions where the butterflies congregate in large groups, are crowded (presumably as in breeding operations), and/or where milkweeds overwinter.  Recent studies by University of Georgia scientists raise concerns that OE spores, which transfer from the butterflies to their milkweed host plant,  will be consumed by and infect subsequent generations of caterpillars, carried into the next season, and ultimately, jeopardize the migration.

Yet scientists agree that OE already is present in the wild population, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Scientists use a 1-5 rating system to determine the extent to which a Monarch butterfly is infected.  On her Monarch parasites webpage, OE expert Dr. Sonia Altizer and her University of Georgia team recommend destroying any Monarchs which are infected by putting them in the freezer for an hour.

Both the IBBA and the AFB have taken steps to educate their memberships about best practices for raising healthy, OE-free butterflies in response to the petition.

ibbaIBBA President Marshburn relayed that courses given by Monarch scientists Dr. Sonia Altizer and Dr. Jaap de Roode have been provided to IBBA members at no charge.  Coaching calls by the IBBA’s most experienced breeders and discounts for pathology screenings are also offered.

The AFB has also worked to educate its membership. President Tatia VeltKamp shared plans for a voluntary OE pupae screening with an independent lab as well as a seal farmers can earn and display on their websites when they complete a four-week disease course.

Education is a step in the right direction, but commercial breeders need to be more aggressive in creating some kind of mandatory self-regulation to ensure healthy livestock don’t damage the wild population.  Independent random OE testing of commercially bred butterflies would go a long way toward assuaging concerns.  The USDA already regulates the transport of butterflies across state lines, requiring shipping permits and forbidding certain species where they are not native.  But OE demands a special check.

OE spores

OE spores are the smaller dots. The larger football shapes are scales. Photo via Monarchparasites.uga.edu

Another option would be to have an independent firm inspect and certify OE free environments at farms. Findings would be published online and butterfly buying customers could choose the reputable “clean” breeders before making a purchase.

Presumably, breeders could also charge more for OE-free certified butterflies—like organic produce. To offset extra costs, breeders could increase prices or suggest a voluntary additional charge on each order. Monarch butterflies typically cost $7.50 and up retail,  depending on availability, time of year, and number ordered. Shipping charges also apply.

I admit to having a soft spot for commercial butterfly breeders. For a brief time, I wanted to become a breeder and joined the IBBA. I got to know this wonderful group of butterfly enthusiasts and learned to respect the challenge of breeding healthy butterflies on deadline.  It’s hard work.

In addition, every butterfly breeder I met through these organizations gravitated to the business because of pure passion for butterflies and a desire to share it.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

The magic and engagement resulting from interactions with butterflies is one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

There’s a place in Monarch butterfly conservation for commercial butterfly breeding. The magic, education and joy that result from the tactile experience of the inter-species connection of butterfly release events and education have the capacity to touch people and make them care.  Interacting with Monarchs in a tactile way serves as one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal.  It should not be reserved only for scientists, professionals, or those with access to wild milkweed patches and gardens, which is what would happen if commercial butterfly breeding were outlawed by the petition’s enactment.  City kids would be completely cut out of this experience if the Monarch becomes listed. And that would be a shame.

Continued lethargy by the IBBA and AFB on self-regulation will contribute to more scrutiny of commercially bred butterfly livestock and could result in more government regulation of their industry.   At best, inaction fosters a PR problem; at worst, it spells the demise of their industry.

Meanwhile, this focus on professional breeders does nothing to address the many butterflies raised at home by people like me who know way less about clean breeding than those who make their living from it.  Based on personal experience and from the active exchanges on the DPLEX list, thousands and thousands of butterflies are raised and released by hobbyist enthusiasts each season. Do those rearing at home bleach their caterpillar cages, wear disposable plastic gloves, provide each caterpillar with their personal container?

Few of these home-reared butterflies, if any, are checked for OE.  Even if Monarchs are listed, I can’t imagine people stopping this practice, which would limit enthusiasts to 100 butterflies per person/per year.  That suggested number increased from 10 per year in the petition after much public outcry.  I agree with Dr. Brower that the petition has done much to galvanize interest and support in Monarchs and other butterflies–including raising them at home.

Monarch Butterfly chrysalis envy

Hobbyist breeders unleash thousands of Monarch butterflies into the universe each season. How many have OE? Photo by Tami Gingrich of northeastern Ohio via Facebook

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use.  Is OE, one of many diseases and natural threats to Monarchs and other milkweed feeders a major factor in the Monarchs’ decline?

Some scientists think so.  Dr. Andy Davis, who is married to Dr. Sonia Altizer, has stated emphatically that the Monarch butterfly is not endangered but that he supports the petition because he thinks OE is the number one threat to Monarchs.

In a recent blogpost on his extremely readable MonarchScience blog, Davis stated: “That’s right, the Monarch declines are not a sure thing.”

In a November 7, 2015 blogpost headlined Why I signed the petition to list Monarchs, even though the evidence for declines is shaky, Davis laid out his logic for supporting the petition. “If I don’t think Monarchs are declining, why did I sign it? It was actually because of a small clause that was buried in the fine print – that stated if the listing was enacted, it would become illegal for people to rear more than 100 Monarchs.”

Davis is adamantly opposed to people raising Monarch butterflies in large numbers because he feels that OE is the number one threat to the Monarch migration. As the contentious debate to answer that question continues, commercial breeders could make a huge contribution to the cause by developing credible ways to eradicate OE in their livestock.

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Texas Comptroller’s office provides update on Monarch butterfly research, ESA status

About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Late season UTSA Monarch

UTSA is growing A LOT of milkweed. Here, late season Monarch, 12/8/2015 at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.

In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.

Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”

And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.

UTSA's Dr. Janis Bush is leading the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush is leading the research. Courtesy photo

The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.

About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November.   The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.

“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”

The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed.   The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.

Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.  “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”

The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices.   For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed?  How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.

“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”

 

ESA process

The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic via USFWS

Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.

At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  she said.

Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.

Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.

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

Monarch butterfly laying eggs.   Apparently, lates season Monarchs ARE reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive.  Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs  suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.

Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well  laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.

This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch.  Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.

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