The monarch butterfly — the immediately recognizable orange, black and white-patterned insect fluttering throughout North America and parts of South America — makes its annual winter migration to Mexico but continues to experience record lows in population.
Since the 2013-14 colony numbers reached an all-time low — approximately 1/30th the population size from the 1996-97 season, the insect’s historically-measured high since recording began in winter 1993-94 — efforts to increase totals have been at work. Now the Keystone Policy Center, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Summit County, is officially getting involved.
Founded in 1975 to independently facilitate discourse of national policy conflicts, the Keystone Policy Center brings together diverse groups of stakeholders, ranging from the public, private and civic sectors to try to come up with solutions. Initial conversations surrounding the monarch among various entities and organizations started in 2015, but the endeavor became official as of last with the convening of the Monarch Collaborative.
“This new effort acknowledges the important role agriculture — farming, ranching, landowners — play in the health and recovery of the species,” said Mike Saccone, the Keystone Policy Center’s director of communications. “Farmers are seen as traditional stewards of the land and have a unique role to play given their experience in implementing voluntary conservation practices and doing it along commercial agriculture.”
At present, the collaborative has a subgroup working toward the process of identifying and vetting potential monarch sustaining practices before any would be adopted and carried out by the larger acting body. Members of the collaborative vary widely in their capacity, from multinational agricultural corporations like the Monsanto Company and Syngenta to conservation nonprofits such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Sand County Foundation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each act in advisor role, among others.
The Keystone Policy Center’s role in bringing this assorted group together is all about dialogue and is not a singular undertaking. The local think tank, with offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., has for years done work in various sectors such as energy, health, the environment and education as well as with specific projects such as Field To Market, an initiative promoting sustainable agriculture and the Honeybee Health Coalition.
“Our collaborative approach will help ensure that this effort will have lasting impact on this decades-long challenge,” Christine Scanlan, president and CEO of the Keystone Policy Center, said in a news release. “We look forward to facilitating this important endeavor in 2016 and beyond, as we work to help monarch populations rebound.”
And the migratory, pollinating insect’s recovery remains a major concern. After efforts to curb illegal deforestation in Mexico and combat other causes of decline in the iconic species — meaning it is recognized as important to cultural identity for their existence and aesthetic value — numbers increased by almost 70 percent for 2014-15, though that’s still the second-smallest population ever. Totals for 2015-16 should be out in the next two months to show which way the trend is moving.
Climatic issues such as severe weather the last few years have taken their toll and are another cause for reduced monarch populations. Many point to industrialized agriculture in the Upper Midwest of the United States (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Illinois), where the monarch breeds in the summer months, as a primary source of shrinking counts.
The expansion of herbicide-based corn and soybean crops genetically resistant to Roundup — a Monsanto product — has destroyed milkweed, a plant with milky sap where the monarch lays its eggs as it returns to Texas and Oklahoma during its northern spring migration. Creative measures will need to be examined to turn the tide in any significant way.
“There are a number of innovative ideas being considered,” said Steven Bradbury, a professor of environmental toxicology at Iowa State University, also a member of the Monarch Collaborative. “We need to look at combining efforts to maximize the diversity in rural landscapes as best we can and find opportunities for multiple ecological goods and services out of a single patch of land.”
Specifically, he discussed stacking operations on farms and ranches, which may achieve a manifold of conservation goals, maintaining water quality for crops and livestock, for instance, while also finding techniques to manage nutrients in groundcover also ideal for monarch breeding habitats. Milkweed grows well between corn and soybean rows but is being wiped out, so taking advantage of non-cropland to increase the amount of this important plant, as well as other native flowering plants — also good for native and honeybees — to create new rural monarch habitat in underutilized areas is seen as another possible solution.
These and many other ideas will be discussed and scrutinized by the sundry of stakeholders within the Monarch Collaborative in the coming months and years. Where that ultimately leads these decision-makers and what an eventual implementation strategy looks like for helping this prized member of the ecosystem is at this time unknown, but the Keystone Policy Center is for now satisfied with progressing the discussion.
“The monarch is an iconic species that is beloved by many and has an amazing migration that’s a remarkable, natural phenomenon, especially among insects,” said Saccone. “That’s why we’ve convened this collaborative with diverse stakeholders to develop collaborative strategies to combat this challenge.”