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Heads up Utah butterfly migration fans, it’s time for the flight of the monarchs

Monarch butterfly and a bee, Washington D.C., Aug. 6, 2018
Lance Cheung
/
USDA, public domain
A bee and Monarch butterfly near the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers Market in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 6, 2018.

Now is the time of the annual International Monarch Monitoring Blitz, fellow lepidopterists!

Every year, the monarch butterfly flies up to 2,500 miles from its U.S. and southern Canada breeding grounds, down to central Mexico for hibernation. For Utahns hoping to catch sight of the only known two-way migrating butterfly, there are several resources: Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, Journey North and the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

Everyone is invited to share their sightings during the 10-day blitz through Aug. 7, 2022.

Laura Lukens, the program coordinator for the Monarch Joint Venture, said Journey North and the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper are good for submitting incidental observations and one-time sightings. It only takes about five minutes to record an observation. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project is a little more in-depth. It involves finding a milkweed patch and recording the number of monarch eggs once weekly.

Sighting data is collected all year, but the blitz is important, Lukens said it provides a snapshot of monarch activity during their peak breeding period, an important insight into the butterfly’s breeding productivity and range.

It also helps Canada, the U.S. and Mexico collaborate and share data.

“The monarch migration knows no borders,” Lukens said. “Monarchs cross three different countries in North America, and so it’s impacted by efforts in each of those different countries.”

Isis Howard, an endangered species conservation biologist who manages the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, said the blitz is invaluable for monarch researchers working with larger trends.

Participation is also really simple.

“You can kind of pick how involved you want to get. But ultimately, even if you are able to submit a picture and just answer a couple of questions, that’s still really, really helpful,” Howard said.

Endangered monarchs

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the status of the natural world, has put the migratory monarch butterfly on its Red List as endangered.

The IUCN found monarch populations have shrunk between 22% and 72% over the past decade. The western population, around Utah, has the greatest risk of extinction. It’s estimated western migratory monarch populations have declined 99.9%. They went from a population of about 10 million in the 1980s to 1,914 butterflies in 2021.

The cause is habitat loss and climate change.

Zach Schumm, an insect diagnostician from Utah State University, said another big impact has been pesticides. For example, Roundup Ready crops are protected from pesticides sprayed to remove unwanted plants, like milkweed — which is the only food source for monarch larvae. Illegal and legal logging has destroyed habitats as well.

Changing weather is also a problem.

“Extreme weather events that are happening are reducing a lot of those overwintering populations,” Schumm said.

Listing as endangered under the IUCN doesn’t give the migratory monarch any protection like it would under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, though. In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the migratory monarch is warranted to be listed but because there are species of higher priority, they didn’t add the butterfly. The service intends to propose listing the monarch as endangered in 2024.

Why preservation is important

The migratory monarch butterfly is the canary in the coal mine.

“Declines in monarchs often reflect the declines in many other butterflies, these and other beneficial insects and pollinators,” Howard said. “If we lose our butterflies and bees and other pollinators, we’re taking away resources from entire ecosystems.”

There’s also a nostalgic argument to be made for preservation, since, as Howard sees it, monarchs “make their presence known in so many people’s lives.”

“Folks have been mostly familiar with them from a young age, and so I think there’s an emotional tie there.”

For Lukens, the migration pattern is worth preserving.

“They have one of the longest migrations in the world, especially of an insect that weighs so little, like less than a gram,” she said. “I think the migratory phenomenon is really amazing and that’s really what we’re worried about losing.”

And for Schumm, it’s just because they’re “an amazing creature that should in no way, shape or form be extinct due to humanity.”

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