Yet more bad news for migratory monarch butterflies

Migrating monarchs in Mexico. Photo Brian Mann

Migrating monarchs in Mexico. Photo Brian Mann

Sorry for the pessimistic headline, but this item is just plain gloomy. The already-precipitous decline of migratory monarch butterflies just got worse.

As reported this past week by the New York Times, the most current measurement of the migratory population has plummeted:

The migrating population has become so small — perhaps 35 million, experts guess — that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.

The Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund said at a news conference on Wednesday that the span of forest inhabited by the overwintering monarchs shrank last month to a bare 1.65 acres — the equivalent of about one and a quarter football fields. Not only was that a record low, but it was just 56 percent of last year’s total, which was itself a record low.

At their peak in 1996, the monarchs occupied nearly 45 acres of forest.

The decline is generally blamed on changes in land use that reduce available habitat and food supply along migratory routes. But recent weather swings have also been a factor. Here’s more from the World Wildlife Federation’s Mexico office. (Note: That article is in Spanish, but my browser offered an English translation that seems fairly accurate.)

This discussion is about the migration of monarchs that move from Mexico to North America each year. While beautiful and massive, it’s not the whole population. National Geographic put it this way:

Though monarchs are found in many parts of the world, the migratory monarch is the most thoroughly studied, since it’s the group that’s most at risk. (Watch a video of monarch butterflies.)

Omar Vidal, director general of WWF-Mexico, noted by email: “The monarch butterfly as a species is not endangered. What is endangered is its migratory phenomenon from Canada to Mexico and back.”

Even if monarchs may hang on in non-migratory locations, this big-picture, overall trend seems discouraging. This Christian Science Monitor article offers up a glimmer of hope through activism, saying “Teachers, schoolchildren, brides, and others have begun fighting back, one seed at a time” by planting milkweed and other plants butterflies need.

The Internet offers a fair number of useful informational or advocacy sites devoted to this topic, such as the Monarch Butterfly Fund. A leading expert on monarchs, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, called the recent news out of Mexico “terrible”. While deeply saddened, she added this call to action:

…as a conservation biologist, I know that what is happening to monarchs is also happening to many other uncounted organisms – organisms whose loss would be equally tragic.  We know about monarchs because they gather in discrete locations every winter, and because thousands of volunteers count them as part of over a dozen different monarch and butterfly citizen science programs.  Monarchs can serve as both indicators of what is happening to many other insects, and as an impetus to save the habitat that they and these uncounted insects require.  To preserve the monarch migration, we need a groundswell of conservation engagement, similar to that experienced in this country during the 1960’s and 70s when we passed important environmental legislation that resulted in protection for endangered species, as well as the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

Another organization, the Live Monarch Foundation, even offers free seeds as part of a “Got Milkweed?” campaign. (One wonders if the dairy industry will object to that slogan similarity?)

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29 Comments on “Yet more bad news for migratory monarch butterflies”

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  1. Two Cents says:

    asclepias for all…..

    Swamp milkweed
    (Asclepias incarnata)

    (Epilobium angustifolium)

    Butterfly milkweed
    Orange milkweed
    Pleurisy root
    (Asclepias tuberosa)

  2. JDM says:

    A leading expert on monarchs, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, called the recent news out of Mexico “terrible”.

    Pardon me if I am no longer impressed what these so-called “experts” think or publish.


    The monarchs are probably vacationing someplace else.

  3. dave says:

    Yeah! Who cares about experts and their silly expertise!!

    Education, knowledge, training, experience, research, data… science… pfffft!

    Me, my cousin Larry, my friend Darryl and my other friend Darryl… we know just as much about these vacationing moths as any ole expert.

  4. JDM says:


    You’d be surprised. You probably know more!

  5. Martin says:

    Good one, Dave.

    Unfortunately, this is yet another canary in a coal mine.

  6. shovel says:

    Two Cents, do you know if monarchs feed on Spreading Dogbane, Apocynum androsaemifolium? It is related to milkweed.

  7. JDM says:

    I applaud legitimate research.

    I disdain “the sky is falling” research.

    People with “Ph.D.” have to make a living. Some have learned that the “Chicken Little” approach increases the likelihood of them getting more research $$$.

    Politicians love Ph.D.’s who take the “Chicken Little” approach because they also have to make a living. And they especially love it when people willingly say, “please raise our taxes and save those poor little butterflies”.

    You see, they prey on the simple-minded, and I disdain that.

    Again, I applaud true, honest research.

  8. Walker says:

    I’d say that the most likely place to find dishonest research is in studies paid for by major industries. A classic example was the asbestosis research conducted in Saranac Lake for Johns Mansville in the 1940s and ’50s– they refused to allow research to be published, and later claimed that they did not have evidence until 1964 that asbestos could cause lung cancer.

    It’s a simple matter of figuring out where the real money is.

  9. Two Cents says:

    looked through my books, here’s what I found about dogbane. doesn’t mention monarchs specifically.

    Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Attracts Butterflies: Spicebush Swallowtail, checkered White, Common Orange Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak, Spring Azure, Pearly Crescentspot, Mourning Cloak, American Painted Lady, Buckeye.

    i have also been told that monarch caterpillars like to dine on almost any species of milkweed.
    I never grew, or know of any dogbane around the yard to offer witness (for JDM) !
    good gardening to you this spring!

    what I did find interesting in the article was the statement that the monarch wasn’t endangered- just the migration between mexico and canada

  10. JDM says:

    Monarchs evolve, you know.

    We are watching a beautiful thing here. Evolution in progress.

    How dare we try to interrupt evolution by passing a law and telling the Monarchs they have to go back to the same ole’ migration sites.

    Maybe they don’t want to go.

    Monarchs are intelligent creatures, you know.

    Maybe they are the intelligent ones, and we are not understanding their reasons for changing.

    There are a lot of things these experts are not thinking about in their quick-to-the-publish conclusions.

  11. Walker says:

    Evolution does not depend on intelligence.

  12. JDM says:

    Intelligence may not be the word, but there are not many humans who could start in New York with no map, no provisions, no GPS,no compass, and make it to Morelia three months later.

    And when you get that many butterflies landing in one place, I’m sure they do their share of damage to our environment, too. They don’t seem to be too concerned over our displeasure.

    We have been bombarded with too many ridiculous concerns over other species, and strangely enough, the answer is always “pass and law and collect more taxes”.

    Some of the human species are intelligent enough to point this out.

  13. Walker says:

    JDM, what recent conservation efforts have been based on raising taxes?

  14. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – I got on a plane recently without any of those things you mention and ended up near Morelia within 12 hours.

  15. Walker says:

    “…I’m sure they do their share of damage to our environment, too. They don’t seem to be too concerned over our displeasure.”

    You seem to be suggesting that we should ignore all that our intelligence makes us aware of, and just destroy whatever we feel like destroying. Problem is, we can be vastly more destructive than any other species going.

  16. JDM says:

    Peter Hahn: That’s really incredible! I didn’t think planes were made without GPS and compasses, anymore. I do know they don’t give out food freely, so I suppose you did have to do some foraging.

    Walker: It’s just that I’m tired of the Ph.D. “chicken little” syndrome. And, when the author says, “passed important legislation”, are you suggesting that they don’t want to raise taxes for this legislation?

    What are they going to say? “Hey, Louie, let’s take care of the Monarch problem by cutting spending on bridges in your district.”

    Ain’t going to happen.

  17. JDM says:

    I think that the Ph.D’s will find that the Monarchs are safe and sound in some new location.

    Are humans more destructive than other species? I don’t think so.

    On the whole, I think they are more productive than destructive. I haven’t yet seen a whale build a solar cell or a wind turbine.

  18. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – what the PhDs have found is that recent human behavior is on par with the huge meteors hitting the earth in terms of mass extinctions. We have the power to force a few extinctions we like – Polio virus – for example, and maybe save a few species we particularly like – and probably most people would vote to save the monarchs. It does cost money though.

  19. Two Cents says:

    jdm, no offense, but take it for what it’s worth, I haven’t heard purer nonsense than what comes out of your posts here.
    whales will build solar panels when they need to run their lap tops
    when will humans stop pissing in their own wells?

    ps don’t confuse intelligence with wisdom

  20. JDM says:

    Two Cents:

    No offense taken.

    Be aware that I haven’t heard more non-sense that what goes on in this blog, either.

    It’s all about perspective.

  21. JDM says:

    One sees the king fully clothed until another one points out that he is fully naked.

  22. JDM says:

    Peter Hahn: “and probably most people would vote to save the monarchs”

    We will see. I bet it never gets voted on…

    And, in a few years, after this article is long forgotten, the Monarchs will be just fine.

  23. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – I hope the monarchs are fine and polio is extinct like small pox

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    JDM, you do see that people are concerned not just for the loss of certain species, but that the loss of species is an indicator of something bigger that may be happening? Something that will cause harm and expense to people, including to you?

  25. JDM says:

    khl: I am more concerned about the effect of over-zealous Ph.D’s, runaway ambitious politicians, and a compliant media and the ill effects they are having on society.

    I think this year has shown how ineffective government is at doing anything.

    If they cannot make a website work, let’s not burden them with the fate of saving some species of anything.

    The government is probably the least able to address this issue.

  26. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    JDM, the way I see it most PHDs are very smart people who do research because they love knowledge more than the money they could be earning doing something else. Until the advent of the 24 hour news channels most media and most politicians were honestly working to serve the public.

    I don’t believe the short term difficulties of the healthcare website proves the government isn’t as effective or better than the private sector. Nor is research intended to drive government. Research is knowledge that people should be using to decide what issues are important.

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Of course I’m speaking in generalities. There is a wide spectrum for anything people are involved with.

    I think some of the problems we have seen in the last several years with polarization of people’s politics has been driven by the media to a great extent but for the most part that doesn’t come from older media sources.
    And many corporations have paid for skewed science or used their financial resources to publicize misleading information in order to confused the public and create gridlock on important issues that should be addressed one way or another.

  28. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I almost forgot one of the most insidious wedges in society today, the confusion that religious people want to create. For some reason many people feel that science is anti-God so they work to obfuscate the role of science in society and even create alternative narratives they try to pass off as science, like Creationism.
    Please, if you are very religious listen to me on this: if you believe in God and you believe he is all powerful then you should believe that God could write the rules that order His universe and science is only a means of understanding the rules that God created.

  29. Mervel says:

    I agree Knuckle.

    You can’t be anti-science per-se; and accept that God is truth and creator.

    But anyway I am more worried about a totally disconnected public from any environmental issues. As more and more of US society lives only in highly dense urban areas, essentially false environments created by human beings, they never see a butterfly or a deer or a live fish in their day to day life, they don’t see stars, etc, thus all of these things become less and less relevant to them as important.

    It just stuff they see on t.v. wild life is simply “cute”(panda bears) or scary (sharks and bears). Intellectually they may understand, but emotionally there is no connection to these living creatures or the environment in general. Thus they don’t really care.

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