Where are the Monarch Butterflies?

North America is home to 90% of the world’s monarch butterfly population.  There are two groups of monarch butterflies; one group east of the Rocky Mountains the other group west of the Rockies.  Both groups migrate throughout Canada, United States and Mexico.  Normally the third generation of the original butterfly returns to the starting point of the migration.  It normally returns to the exact same place or even tree its ancestor left to begin its journey.

 In the 1980s Monarch butterflies that migrate to California numbered in the millions.  The last two years have seen a drop in population to under 30 thousand butterflies.  This fall there was less than 2 thousand mating adult monarch butterflies on the California west coast.  It is believed to be caused by the destruction of their habitat through human activities and the overwhelming amount of California wild fires this past year.  In the state of Washington there were only nine individuals last year and just two this year of these beautiful insects.  The main reason for the decreased numbers of monarchs is the destruction of their habit.  165 million acres or the size of Texas has been lost over the last 20 years of the monarch’s habitat.  Their habitat has been developed or lost to herbicides.  The main loss is the milkweed plant.  The milkweed plant is the host plant for the butterfly; it is the food source for monarch larva. 

Since the mid 1990s the eastern group of monarch butterflies have had a loss of 80% of its population, which is actually better than the western group.  There was a loss of population last year from the year before of monarchs in every state in the U.S. except Utah.  Last year Utah had a slight increase.

Canada, Mexico and the United States signed an international agreement for Monarch conservation.  When the Endangered Species Act came out in 2008, the monarch butterfly had been assessed as a species of special concern.   The Canadian government defines “species of special concern as a wildlife species that may become a threatened or an endangered species because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.  Special concern species do not receive species or habitat protection.  The Canadian federal government has helped fund 74 projects that have a direct affect on butterflies and other pollinators since 2015.  Two main programmes are Aboriginal Fund for the Species at Risk and Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk.

Last March, (2020) there was a decrease from the year before of 53% for the count of monarch butterflies in Mexico.  The losses are caused from the loss of milkweeds and the deforestation of Mexico’s oyamel fir trees as a result of illegal logging.  The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve to protect monarch’s wintering habitat was created by the Mexican government in 1996.  It is a training programme that is aimed to help local communities manage their natural resources and help provide economic alternatives and skills.  Mexico is also trying something a bit different.  The scientists are moving fir trees up the mountains.  The Oyamel fir forest is a wintering home for monarch butterflies in Mexico.  The idea is to move the fir trees 400 metres up the mountain to save the trees from raising temperatures.  The hope is by saving the trees that serve as the monarchs’ winter habitat, this saves the butterflies as well.

The Great Lakes Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services is in charge of the monarch butterflies’ case in the United States.  It was listed in 2014 to be placed onto the Endangers Species list in the States.  Both the eastern and western monarch have been granted endangered species protection, but at the moment there are nine other species (little brown bat, plain spotted skunk, Illinois chorus frog, golden-winged warbler, Blanding’s turtle, mammoth springs crayfish, two different fresh water mussels and a plant – Hall’s bulrush) with a higher priority status.  For now, the monarch’s status will be reviewed yearly.  It is planned to be entered onto the Endangered Species Act in 2024.  Without being listed there is no United States federal help for the monarch butterfly.

Currently, the monarch butterflies’ population is below the quasi-extinction threshold.  This is the point at which the migration may collapse.  A little can go a long way towards keeping these beautiful creatures from extinction.   Start by not using pesticides or herbicides in your gardens.  Plant native milkweed or better yet create a Monarch Way-Station.  A monarch way-station needs at least ten milkweed plant of two different varieties.  Different varieties of milkweed plants are Common Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed, Whorled Milkweed and Tropical Milkweed.  Different milkweed plants come into bloom at different times so the more varieties your way-station has the longer Monarchs can use it.   We need to save these beautiful insects from extinction.