As a youth I spent virtually all of my free time outdoors observing nature in the form of wandering the woodlands, fields, creeks, and ponds. I was fascinated with our natural world and constantly observed creatures such as frogs, turtles, snakes, salamanders, birds, and other wildlife. Often I would catch them and bring them home. My mother was a saint, putting up with the critters I would bring home. She and I still talk about those days.
When I was around 10 or 12 years old, I recall lying in my backyard with my brother in Eastern Nebraska on a clear September day. At any one time, we could see hundreds of monarch butterflies flying south to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
On fall evenings, we would see trees that had turned bright orange because of the many thousands of monarchs that had settled on them to roost for the evening. The sense of wonder that came with it sticks in my memory and, along with other outdoor experiences, led me to a career of protecting our natural creatures and natural heritage for future generations.
Youth these days are very unlikely to see what my brother and I saw.
The monarch population has plummeted over 90 percent since that time, and much of that has occurred in the last 20 years. The majority of this decline is a result of loss of breeding and feeding habitat. There has been a massive loss of milkweeds in the upper Midwest due to changes in agriculture and other human activities.
In my youth I hoed weeds in soybean fields, and milkweed was one of them. At that time, milkweed was one of the most common plants in the fields. Milkweed is the only plant that monarch larvae feed on, and now it is virtually nonexistent in our croplands.
Many species of animals once common in North America are in decline due to human influences such as loss of habitat, pollution, pesticides, introduced diseases, invasive species, and other factors. Often it’s not just one factor that is contributing to the loss of species and species diversity.
In the case of the monarch butterfly, loss of milkweeds and flowering plants is the primary cause of their decline. But there are other factors.
Climate change as a factor
Climate-change predictions point to more extremes in weather. This could result in changes to the Mexico wintering area conditions, where intense storms could destroy large numbers of monarchs when they congregate on fewer and smaller areas.
Climate change could result in huge storms in the form of hurricanes that impact the monarchs as they migrate. Droughts and severe storms along the monarch migration route have already been documented to negatively impact our limited monarch population.
Many species have special population dynamics that impact them. You’ve probably heard the saying “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Climate change could be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the monarch.
None of us had the opportunity to see a passenger pigeon or the wonders of their vast migration. While it’s widely believed loss of habitat and over hunting were the primary reasons for the passenger pigeon’s decline, many scientists believe that the answer lies in special population dynamics. In other words, the final cause of extinction was because the population eventually got too small to maintain a viable breeding population, and that was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Could the same thing happen to the monarch or many of the other species that are in decline?
Perhaps the current monarch habitat can sustain the smaller population, but what would happen if a severe weather event resulted in destruction of half of the current population? Or, perhaps unfavorable changes in the climate further reduced breeding success? This could cause the monarch population to dip to a point where it cannot recover, and the monarch would go the way of the passenger pigeon.
The poweshiek skipperling butterfly
In just the last few years, the poweshiek skipperling butterfly has completely disappeared from Minnesota and may become extinct in the wild soon. We do not know why the already limited population suddenly crashed. Perhaps climate change contributed to this. We will never know.
This happened on my watch while I have been trying to save habitat for our native wildlife. In my lifetime I may witness the extinction of this creature, and that bothers me greatly. We are still trying to understand the connections impacting species loss, and there is a lot we don’t know.
It is scary to think that we could lose the monarchs.
In my youth I had the opportunity to witness the wonders of millions upon millions of monarchs, and I am richer for it. I am saddened to think it’s possible that my generation will be the last to see monarchs in the wild.
Our grandchildren and great grandchildren may be robbed of an opportunity to have a richer life and enjoy our natural wonders and natural heritage. Sadly, our children currently are exposed to monarchs at much lower numbers than what I witnessed. To them this is the norm, as they do not know anything different. Do we want to be responsible for that?
Everything on this earth is connected in some way. To not recognize that and not recognize that we are impacting our earth is irresponsible and does a disservice to future generations. How sad to think that our grandchildren may only see a monarch as an image online or a specimen in a museum.
I have had the opportunity to witness and experience many of our natural wonders. These experiences provided the basis for my desire protect our natural world. Our youth may not have an opportunity to experience these natural wonders. It’s difficult to want to protect what you do not know.
And without our natural wonders, all will have a poorer quality of life. What fuels your incentive to make change? What can you do to make sure future generations can experience this sense of wonder?
Scott Glup has lived in the Willmar area for approximately 15 years. He is active in Boy Scouts and serves on the Governing Board for Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and enjoys many outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing, camping, and gardening. Scott was a storyteller for Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy’s Youth Convening MN project in New London-Spicer. This piece was originally published in their climate stories collection.
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