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The monarch butterfly is in trouble. This U of M expert explains how you can help

A new study from MSU finds that variations in weather can have a major impact on monarch butterfly populations. That makes climate change a looming threat for the beloved species.
Erin Minuskin
A new study from MSU finds that variations in weather can have a major impact on monarch butterfly populations. That makes climate change a looming threat for the beloved species.

The monarch butterfly is an iconic species, but the insect may be in trouble. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the migratory monarch butterfly as endangered.

Mark Hunter is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. He studies monarch populations on milkweed plants in Pellston, Michigan.

“We’ve been studying monarch populations every year for the last 50 years,” Hunter said. “We count the numbers of butterflies that arrive and we count the number of caterpillars that we find on their milkweed plants. One of the things that we noticed very quickly was when I first started, hundreds of monarchs each year you could find within five or 10 minutes, dozens of larvae, if you were good at looking.”

However, his research group has noticed drastic declines in wildlife populations, including the monarch. This includes well over 70% reductions in monarch caterpillars.

Hunter said this decline in natural pollinators could put Michigan’s fruit and vegetable industry at risk.

“When honey bees are in trouble, the native pollinators including monarch butterflies … can take up a little of the slack,” Hunter said. “It seems to me that we’re playing Russian roulette with pollination services.”

In addition to counting the monarch populations in Pellston, his team also recorded all other species that lived on the milkweed. He said 50% of the other insect species are declining as well.

“We know about the monarch because people care, it’s a charismatic species and everybody loves the monarch,” Hunter said. “By studying the monarch, we find out that actually, that’s happening to many other species as well. You can think of that as a sentinel species.”

Hunter said the addition of the monarch butterfly to the IUCN’s list will capture people’s attention and inspire change.

“(Monarchs) are sort of this iconic species that people love,” Hunter said. “They’re an entry point for people into citizen science or for kids into science in general. They’re sort of like dinosaurs. Kids love dinosaurs and go to museums to see dinosaurs and get excited. Monarch butterflies do that for people as well.”

Right now, the monarch butterfly is not listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For that reason, one of the suppliers for Frederik Meijer Gardens’ butterfly exhibit, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm, is not anticipating an issue providing monarchs to the exhibit.

“The monarch is not listed as an endangered species in the United States. The USFWS will review it as a candidate yearly, but they have reported that other species have higher priority and are in greater danger than the monarch butterfly,” Shady Oak Butterfly Farm sent in a statement to Frederik Meijer Gardens.

However, Hunter said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t exactly have the resources to add the monarch to their list.

“It’s not just a matter of adding the name to an Excel spreadsheet or something like that,” Hunter said. “They have to come up with a series of guidelines and laws to protect the monarch. That takes people, and it takes time, and that all takes money.”

Legislation and guidelines need to be drafted with proper funding, and lack of funding for conservation organizations contributes to this issue.

Because the monarch butterfly is a migratory species, Hunter said helping the species will require consideration of its migration patterns in a holistic manner.

“We have to legislate on habitat loss, that’s critical,” Hunter said. “We have to legislate on pesticide use, make sure that we’re using the most benign pesticides that we possibly can and integrate those with other mechanisms of pest control. Finally, we have to do urgent action on climate … We just have to start meeting our commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Hunter said saving the monarchs is a win-win situation for conservation and the agricultural industry. He wants to encourage power companies to conserve in their open areas like wind and solar farms by planting milkweed for these native pollinators.

For those who want to get involved at an individual level, he encourages people to donate to conservation agencies and look at how they vote.

“When we are preparing to vote, look at who is talking about land conservation, look at who is talking about endangered species, look at who’s talking about climate change, habitat loss,” Hunter said. “If they have concrete plans to do something about it, you may consider casting a vote in their direction.”

People can also help by planting native Michigan milkweed in their own backyard. Hunter believes if action is taken at an individual and government level, the monarch can be saved.

“I’m an optimist,” Hunter said. “I believe we can do anything we put our minds to.”

Morgan Womack joined Michigan Radio as a digital news intern in June. She is a journalism student at Michigan State University.
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