In the face of prolonged challenges concerning the sheer survival of the iconic monarch butterfly, leaders from within Summit County are continuing to help make inroads at the national level on this complicated issue.
The Keystone Policy Center, a not-for-profit think tank headquartered in the region, announced last week some proven standards produced by its Monarch Collaborative to assist in the overall effort. The goal of these tips is to provide valuable information on habitat management for owners of agricultural landscapes where the monarch typically nests and reproduces.
“Basically, we’re trying to get some suggestions, some principles out there that the organizations that are part of the Keystone (Collaborative) have been using to help this discussion,” said Steven Bradbury, professor of environmental toxicology at Iowa State University and a member of the collaborative. “It’s just getting some explanation out there and the resources to provide things to think about if you want to get a habitat patch started on some land.”
The recommendations range from advice on site selection for safeguarding milkweed germination, to which nectar plants also contribute to monarch reproduction and how to establish these seedbeds, as well as best practices for maintaining and monitoring this vital monarch vegetation. The intent of this recently released principle and resource list is to compliment the 10-state monarch conservation effort launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November of 2015.
Milkweed is a plant with milky sap where the monarch lays its eggs during northern migration to states like Oklahoma and Texas. It commonly grows between rows of soybeans and corn, but, in recent years, the expansion of herbicide-based seeds for these two crops has increasingly destroyed this important breeding ground.
“You’ve got to realize that even by the very nature of the term, milkweed was considered a weed,” said Wayne Fredericks, director of the American Soybean Association. “It’s only been of recent time where we’ve to come to the conclusion that we’ve too good a job with that, and that now we need to work on bringing back that habitat in areas where it’s suitable.”
Fredericks, also a member of Keystone’s Monarch Collaborative, explained this is why continuing to spread awareness through means such as the principle and resource list among the agricultural industry is so important. That way farmers and other overseers of rural landscapes can be involved in finding alternatives and playing a notable role in reestablishing traditional monarch habitat on non-production parcels of land.
The population of the monarch, heavily reported upon in the last decade, has been in dramatic free fall since posting a record high measure during the 1996-97 season. Colony numbers in 2013-14 reached an all-time low since recording began in 1993-94, at approximately a 30th of that historical total.
The large-winged, instantly-recognizable orange, black and white-patterned insect of course confronts other factors that contribute to difficulties in survival as it migrates each winter to Mexico before the Midwestern and Southern Plains states of the U.S. and parts of southern Canada. Beyond industrialized agriculture, climactic issues and deforestation impact population totals greatly.
The 2016 statistics released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in late-February of this year brought the mildly favorable news that monarch populations were on the upswing. Surveys showed that 200 million of the butterflies were occupying about 4 hectares (nearly 10 acres) of Mexican forest. That was up from an estimated 57 million in 2014-15 and that record low of only 34 million in 2013-14.
Bradbury explained that research and analysis has initially targeted an average of overwintering populations in Mexico at or above 6 hectares for species recovery. As a result, even with improving numbers, the monarch remains at population totals of concerning levels.
On top of that, it was only a few weeks after the 2015-16 survey that a severe ice storm rolled through their Mexican habitat and likely caused notable monarch die-off from that 4 hectare total that was looking up.
“It’s still uncertain as to the population that started migrating north,” said Bradbury, “but early indications are that that winter kill was not an insignificant event. So 4 (hectares) is good, but maintaining 6 or better is the target that we need to hit. If the numbers don’t get up and stay up, you get a winter storm like that and things get pretty dicey.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
With the assistance of a number of contributing stakeholders, the Mexican government worked to suppress illegal deforestation that was affecting monarch totals.
But now, as a report in The New York Times highlighted at the end of April, the battle over re-opening a shuttered mine in Angangueo, Mexico (about 75 miles west of Mexico City and adjacent to the crucial winter monarch habitat) stands to threaten the population yet again. The worry is the amount of water used by the mine will dry out nearby springs and possibly kill the fir trees in which the monarchs congregate.
“It’s really important now for the coordination between the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican governments and various organizations,” said Bradbury, speaking of general collaboration. “It’s a multipronged conservation approach for maintaining and improving spring and summer breeding habitat … to maintain and enhance the populations. It takes all those different facets coming together.”
The Keystone Policy Center’s Monarch Collaborative believes actions like its recent set of recommendations is one way to offset some of these potentially negative impacts on the monarch butterfly’s survival. The hope is they act as the early-on guiding principles to invite a broad group of stakeholders to engage and assist in the effort.
“There always are complications when a species becomes listed on the endangered species list,” said Fredericks. “We sure don’t want (the monarch) to become listed. Overall, it just shows a failure of society to be aware of what’s going.
“There’s a lot of that thought in this group,” he continued, “that it’s not just species concern, it’s we’ve got to look at how we can adjust our operations to provide for survival of these species. I think the collaboration is a good approach to address the situation.”