Every summer for 18 years, Alan Branhagen has driven north from Kansas City up Interstate 35 into his native Iowa, keeping his eyes peeled for the color orange.
Maybe if he were looking for traffic barrels he would have found greater joy.
Instead, the director of horticulture at Powell Gardens has found himself in the disheartening habit of trying to spot the fluttering orange wings of monarch butterflies, whose yearly migration between Mexico and Canada has captivated both scientists and nature lovers for generations.
A few years ago, Branhagen said, he often counted a half-dozen or more butterflies every mile on their journey north.
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“Over the last two years, instead of seeing seven or eight per mile,” he said this week, “it is per 100 miles.”
That the loss of habitat from agriculture, herbicides and development has caused the monarch population to be decimated over the last two decades — going from an all-time high of 1 billion in 1996 to about 55 million last year — has become a familiar story.
But new hope appeared on the landscape for both the monarch and its admirers this week with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcing a “major new campaign” to save the butterfly. It is an effort with significance in the Kansas City area, as the butterfly’s migratory route east of the Rocky Mountains essentially runs up and down the states along the I-35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota.
“We can save the monarch butterfly in North America, but only if we act quickly and together,” said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
As part of the campaign, the service joined forces with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The wildlife service pledged an immediate $2 million for “on-the-ground” conservation projects, namely to plant some 200,000 acres of milkweed on lands the agency controls. In the Kansas City region, such areas could include Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.
The service also earmarked an additional $1.2 million to the wildlife foundation as startup money, to be matched dollar for dollar by private donations and spent on future projects dedicated to conserving monarchs.
But the major key to monarch survival is milkweed, the only plant that the monarch, as a butterfly or in its caterpillar stage, dines on. As such, the service and other organizations are calling on people to plant milkweed in their own gardens to help replace millions upon millions of acres of milkweed that have been lost in recent decades.
“I mean, they’re part of our natural history. They’re part of the landscape people have enjoyed for generations and generations. And they’re pollinators,” said Georgia Parham, public affairs specialist for the Midwest region of the wildlife service. “This is a national effort. It’s something where everyone can help. It’s something that is a doable thing.”
More than doable, planting milkweed may be vital, others said.
“We have to do that, or else we’re going to lose them,” said Chip Taylor, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas who, long concerned about monarchs, began the nonprofit Monarch Watch in the 1990s to help bring back its numbers.
Last year, the group shipped some 59,000 milkweed seedlings to schools and nonprofits, which can get them for free, or to individuals who purchased them. This year, said Taylor, the group expects to send out as many as 100,000 to 200,000, which sounds like a lot. But he said it’s far from enough plants to restore the monarchs.
“Millions are needed,” he said.
Although the wildlife service’s plan to plant 200,000 acres of milkweed is a positive step, Taylor said, some 1 million acres of milkweed have been lost each year for many years. It has been plowed under for development, or killed off to plant corn for ethanol, or eliminated by herbicides.
Milkweed in the past often grew up between row crops, where it served as food for the butterflies and the caterpillars on their journey of up to 3,000 miles between central Mexico and as far north as Winnipeg, Canada.
“It is one of the most amazing migrations in the world,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist for the Arizona-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.
In August, the center was one of several conservation groups that petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the monarch a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The wildlife service is considering the petition.
Monarchs are sensitive to wet and freezing temperatures. As the weather turns colder in the fall, they migrate from the north, from Canada and states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, for a weekslong journey south to the mountains of Mexico. West of the Rockies, the butterflies travel to the Southern California coast.
In Mexico, the butterflies amass in the tens of millions, returning to the same area and the same trees, often arriving just in time for the festivities surrounding el Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. There, they spend the winter, until around February or March when they fly back north.
On their southern passage, the same butterflies that leave Canada and northern states are the ones that arrive in Mexico, Curry said. But the flight north takes multiple generations. Part of the mystery of monarchs is how the distant progeny of the butterflies that left Mexico are able to return so accurately to winter spots they had never known before.
How they get north is less mysterious.
“They follow the milkweed,” Curry said. “They follow the blooming and flowering of the milkweed. That is why the loss of milkweed puts them at risk.”
It is also why planting the correct milkweed is important. Different species of milkweed are native to different states. Taylor, Curry and others said that is why it is important for people thinking of planting milkweed in their gardens to get the correct variety. Various websites exist to help consumers, including those by Monarch Watch and the wildlife service.
Curry, however, cautions that consumers must be careful. Some varieties of milkweed seed, particularly those sold at some big-box hardware stores, have been shown to be treated with pesticides that can actually kill monarchs, she said. She cautioned against getting any milkweed seed that declares it resists aphids, as it is possible that it contains the chemical deadly to the butterflies as well.
If there is any good news regarding monarchs, Taylor said, it is that favorable weather conditions in recent years have helped their numbers grow from a low of about 30 million two years ago to the 55 million counted last year. Even without the planting of more milkweed, the monarch population could again double this year.
But there is a limit, with the number determined by the amount of milkweed available. If a million acres of milkweed continue to be lost each year, the population of monarchs can only decline, he said.
More monarchs means more planting.
“It can be done,” Taylor said.
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monarchs by the numbers
1 billion: Monarchs counted in 1996, the most ever recorded
300 million: Average year
55 million: Monarchs counted in 2014
Source: Monarch Watch