Migrating monarchs are in trouble. Here’s how we can all help them.

A new conservation plan weighs the burden and interests of landowners, biologists, and butterfly enthusiasts alike.

Monarch butterflies cover a tree at El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico.D.
André Green II
D. André Green II is an assistant professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. This story originally featured on The Conversation.

One of nature’s epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies’ fall migration. Departing from all across the US and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.

Human activities have an outsized impact on monarchs’ ability to migrate yearly to these specific sites. Development, agriculture and logging have reduced monarch habitat. Climate change, drought and pesticide use also reduce the number of butterflies that complete the journey.

Since 1993, the area of forest covered by Eastern monarchs at their overwintering sites in Mexico has fallen from a peak of 45 acres in 1996-1997 to as low as 1.66 acres in the winter of 2013-2014. A 2016 study warned that monarchs were dangerously close to a predicted “point of no return.” The 2019 count of monarchs in California was the lowest ever recorded for that group.

What was largely a bottom-up, citizen-powered effort to save the struggling monarch butterfly migration has shifted toward a top-down conversation between the federal government, private industry and large-tract landowners. As a biologist studying monarchs to understand the molecular and genetic aspects of migration, I believe this experiment has high stakes for monarchs and other imperiled species.

Millions of people care about monarchs

I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs’ overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.

Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs’ summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.

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