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Making sure the monarchs always return to Minnesota

Here in Minnesota, we’re seeing in our yards what people across America have seen in recent years: startlingly fewer numbers of monarchs.

Long before I became a biologist and lawyer working to save endangered plants and animals, I was completely captivated by monarch butterflies.

As a child growing up in Blaine, I’d lie flat on my back out in the September sun and stare up at the clouds, watching for streams of monarchs fluttering across the lush blue Minnesota sky on the beginning of their remarkable journey to their high-mountain over-wintering grounds in central Mexico.

Collette Adkins Giese

It’s a love I’ve passed on to my two children. We planted some of our suburban yard in native prairie, including the monarch caterpillar’s only food, milkweed, which in recent years has declined drastically across the Midwest with the increasing use of the pesticide Roundup on crops genetically modified to be resistant to it.

Now, here in Minnesota, we’re seeing in our yards what people across America have seen in recent years: startlingly fewer numbers of monarchs.

Down to the lowest number ever recorded

In the past 20 years their population has declined by 90 percent, down from a high of 1 billion in the mid-1990s to only 35 million last winter, the lowest number ever recorded.

Though as a scientist I understand that insect populations naturally show great fluctuations, I also understand we risk pushing monarchs to extinction if we turn away from the mounting evidence that they are in very real trouble.

Back in 2002 a single winter storm killed an estimated 500 million monarchs — 14 times the size of the entire current population. And over the past two decades monarchs have lost millions of acres of habitat – a total area estimated to be about the size of Texas.

Climate change also threatens the long-term survival of the butterflies in their over-wintering grounds in Mexico, which are projected to become climatically unsuitable for monarchs in the coming decades. Similarly, large parts of their U.S. summer breeding grounds are predicted to become too hot for caterpillars to survive.

A petition seeking protection

That’s why the organization where I work, the Center for Biological Diversity, joined with the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society and preeminent monarch researcher Lincoln Brower in filing a petition asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to extend Endangered Species Act protection to the butterflies before it’s too late.

The monarch’s decline, and the decline of many other species at the heart of my conservation work, from bees and bats to frogs, turtles, lizards and snakes, is a wakeup call that we are paving and spraying our way to a less beautiful and dangerously less-diverse planet.

To combat that trend, much of my own work in recent years has been pushing the Environmental Protection Agency and the FWS to live up to their legal responsibility to protect all of us from the mounting threat of the 1 billion pounds of pesticides dumped on the North American landscape every year.

Slowly, we’re seeing progress.

Pesticide impacts

Just a few weeks ago the Center entered a nationwide settlement with FWS requiring the agency to analyze impacts on endangered species across the country from five dangerous pesticides found to be toxic to wildlife and that may pose a health risk to humans.

And after we joined the Center for Food Safety in petitioning the FWS to address the use of a highly toxic class of pesticides linked to the widespread collapse of bee colonies throughout the U.S., last month the agency announced federal wildlife refuges would phase out their use.

These important steps give me hope that we’re beginning to understand the importance of protecting the little things that literally hold together the world we all share, from birds and bees to frogs and butterflies.

And I see hope closer to home, as well.

My 7-year old daughter loves to comb through the milkweeds looking for monarch caterpillars. This year she found her smallest one ever – barely an eighth-of-an-inch long – and named it Tiny.

She and the neighborhood kids fed it milkweed and patiently watched as it slowly transformed over several weeks — until one day it blossomed into a beautiful, healthy monarch butterfly that they released into the Minnesota sky.

Minnesota native Collette Adkins Giese is a biologist and senior staff attorney in the Minneapolis office of the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/01/2014 - 10:04 am.

    Minnesota Zoo presentation

    Recently there was a program on the decline of the Monarch at the Minnesota Zoo. The presentation by Karen Oberhauser of the U of M can be viewed at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSNcvYzJYnw&feature=youtu.be

    It was a good presentation, and I learned some interesting things about Monarchs I hadn’t known before.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/01/2014 - 02:25 pm.

    Start at home

    Genetically modified crops are an easy target for the “save the monarchs” campaign. However, they’re probably not the best target. While farmers that use GMO crops need to be more responsible about how they use them and companies that produce the seeds and chemicals need to be more vigilant about how they create them and market them, the problems related to the use of pesticide resistant crops will likely find a resolution long before the problem of our lawns has been adequately addressed.

    This seems ridiculous, considering that lawns are ornamental in nature rather than productive (as farms are). In fact, per acre, approximately twice as much pesticide is applied to residential property as agricultural. And because either the laws or the enforcement thereof are more lax on residential usage, much more of it is improperly used and/or runs off into areas that it wasn’t intended for. Since lawns aren’t genetically modified for resistance to these pesticides, it’s not a matter of simply switching the type of grass you plant.

    Aside from gratuitous pesticide use, our lawns are poor places for insects, bees and butterflies included. A lawn of grass is a huge desert for these pollinators. Adding patches of native plants is good, but still, these insects must forage further for food than they would if our suburban lots were prairie. More needs to be done to encourage the use of native plants and make them more accessible to home owners. People need to know that native plants can be beautiful and require much less maintenance than the usual ornamentals. However, there are few places which you can get truly native Minnesota plants, and even fewer with reasonable variety available. And they’re not free, either. Plus, you can’t just go out to the nearest nature preserve and gather your own. Even if you knew which ones would survive transplant, you’re disturbing those preserves and risk breaking the law.

    I’m doing things to make my yard, which was all but one tree short of being entirely grass when we moved in a year and a half ago, into a bee and butterfly haven. We’ve planted some ornamentals and a bunch of native plants. We’ve tried very hard not to resort to chemicals, and when we do, being very particular about which we use (we have a pond so we have to be careful of our amphibian friends). However, I can understand how tempting it is to use chemicals–the stinking Japanese beetles devastated our new rose bushes and munched on our native pussy willow, too. Safer treatments, including insecticidal soaps, are ineffective, and every pesticide that is effective is also a bee killer. We resorted to picking them by hand and drowning them in soapy water. AAGH! Still, we saw many native bee species and some small butterfly species, along with the occasional swallowtail and monarch. I’m hoping we can get the beetles under control, so that we can continue to be very selective about our chemical use. But the bigger impact would be if everyone, or at least a critical mass of people, do like we’re trying to do. Educating people on this will have a much bigger impact than putting the monarch on the endangered species list.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/01/2014 - 05:59 pm.

      Yards as prairie

      Keep in mind that some communities, neighborhood associations and the like actually penalize people for installing native plantings. If it’s not green grass, a plot of annuals, or something that looks like it was plotted out with a ruler, a compass and a string, it’s deemed unattractive and maybe even a public nuisance.

      I think there are signs this is changing (one encouraging trend is community-sponsored rainwater gardens) and awareness is growing. But we need to keep talking up ALL aspects why moving away from the scourge of the suburban green “wall to wall carpet” is a GOOD thing!

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 10/03/2014 - 11:39 am.

    Even in the city we can help a little

    I encourage the growth of milkweed, an interesting plant, and try to help propagate it. Yes, it attracts monarchs. In former years I had a secluded, postage-stamp size semi-wild woods as a front yard in the heart of Cedar-Riverside; one day a wood cock actually alit several times to probe for food! (Unfortunately my cat scared it away.) I also harvested morels there and nearby, City governments–inspections departments–should allow for some reasonable semi-wild habitat.

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