Monarch Watch Blog

Free Milkweeds for Restoration Projects

4 June 2015 | Author: Monarch Watch

Through funding provided by Monsanto, we will be able to offer 100,000 free milkweed plugs for large-scale restoration projects in June and September of 2015 and through spring and fall 2016. Applicants for these free plugs are asked to describe the site. We would like to know the type of habitat (roadside, old field, prairie restoration, etc.), its location (including a picture and approximate latitude and longitude), along with a brief description how the site will be maintained. We would also appreciate it if your group would provide us with pictures taken during or after the planting. While the plugs are free, the recipients must agree to cover the modest shipping costs described below. For more information on Monsanto’s monarch program please visit:

If you or someone you know is interested in free milkweeds for large-scale restoration projects, complete details are available here or here.

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Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

3 June 2015 | Author: Monarch Watch

The White House posted this advisory online yesterday:

First Lady Michelle Obama To Harvest The White House Kitchen Garden, Highlight Pollinators
Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Washington, DC * 3:30 PM – The First Lady will welcome students from across the country who participate in the ten Let’s Move! sub-initiative programs to harvest the White House Kitchen Garden. In 2009, Mrs. Obama planted a vegetable garden on the South Lawn to initiate a national conversation around the health and wellbeing of our nation—a conversation that evolved into her Let’s Move! Initiative.

This garden harvest will highlight the important role of pollinators in the healthy food that we grow and consume. Last year, Mrs. Obama planted a pollinator garden next to the White House Kitchen Garden to support bees, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators as part of Administration efforts to promote pollinator health. Pollinators play a critical role in supporting agricultural production, and they are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take. Because pollinators are facing disturbing signs of decline from a variety of causes, important efforts are underway to support pollinator health and habitat.

In addition to strategies and recommendations outlined by the Administration’s Pollinator Health Task Force, outside organizations have stepped up to support pollinators. This year, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. donated one million pollinator seed packets to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior to encourage people to plant pollinator gardens in communities across the country. Nearly 30,000 of these seed packets were distributed to families at this year’s Easter Egg Roll.

As well, the newly established National Pollinator Garden Network is launching on Wednesday the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a nationwide call to action to preserve and create gardens and landscapes that help revive the health of pollinators. More information on this challenge will be available at Wednesday’s event.

Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

To help her with the harvest, Mrs. Obama invited children from schools and locations that participate in the ten Let’s Move! programs, representing the millions of Americans that have been impacted by the Let’s Move! Initiative. Children from each of these programs also joined the First Lady at this year’s garden planting in April. These programs (full list here) were launched in collaboration with federal agencies, businesses, and non-profits to mobilize every sector to work in alignment with the overall goals of Let’s Move! and offer solutions, objectives, and technical assistance to help kids and families lead healthier lives.

The event will be livestreamed at

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Monarch Population Status

6 May 2015 | Author: Chip Taylor

“Monarch Futures”

If there were such a thing as Monarch Futures* on the market right now, I’d buy all I could. The immediate future for monarchs looks bright – there is a good chance the population will increase this year. Last year during the first week of May I predicted the monarch population would increase in 2014 and it did. The total area of trees occupied by monarchs in Mexico (1.13 hectares) was less than expected but it was still an improvement over the all-time low recorded in the winter of 2014 (0.67 hectares). Fortunately, during the overwintering period (November-March) for both years the weather was relatively normal and the monarchs wintered well.

Monarchs begin moving north at the end of February in some years with small numbers arriving in Texas close to 7 March. The timing of the departure evidently depends on the local weather conditions and the movement north can be delayed by weeks. That was the case this year, with a first wave of monarchs arriving in Texas three weeks later than normal. The arrival of monarchs in Texas has been delayed in the past by weather conditions that were similar to those seen this spring in Mexico and Texas – notably in 1996, 2005 and 2010. And guess what – in all three of those years, the population increased. In fact, they were the three biggest increases seen from 1996 through 2014. That sounds promising but it’s not a guarantee. The first generation monarchs (offspring of those returning from Mexico) still have to reach the northern breeding areas. Though I’m reasonably confident the population will increase, I’m worried about what would happen if 1) the size of the first generation moving north is smaller than expected or 2) they arrive too late in the northern breeding areas (as happened in 2013). If either or both of these occur, the magnitude of the fall migration and the size of the subsequent overwintering population might not increase.

Looking ahead, the weather forecasts for the next 45 days appear to favor the northward movement of first generation monarchs. We just have to keep our fingers crossed that good numbers of these butterflies reach the upper Midwest by the end of May.

While I’m optimistic about this season, the long-term scenario for monarchs remains in doubt. As you all know, habitat loss since 1996 – an area estimated to equal the size of Texas – has reduced milkweed/monarch habitat to the point where it is unlikely that even under the best of conditions overwintering numbers will exceed 4 hectares. An overwintering population of 4 hectares is too few given the potential for catastrophic mortality during the winter months combined with unfavorable conditions during the breeding season (as occurred from 2011-2013).

Further, there is the issue of annual losses of habitat. I’ve estimated these several different ways and have consistently come up with losses of 1-1.5 million acres per year. It’s clear – unless we restore at least a million acres of milkweed/monarch habitat a year, monarchs will continue to lose ground. Milkweed/monarch restoration is underway with the help of federal agencies, corporations, Universities, NGOs and individuals pitching in – yet the scale of these efforts is still small relative to the need.

It brings to mind the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who tells Alice:

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

Clearly, we need to restore more than a million acres per year – run twice as fast – to Bring Back The Monarchs.

*DEFINITION of ‘Commodity Futures Contract’
An agreement to buy or sell a set amount of a commodity at a predetermined price and date. Buyers use these to avoid the risks associated with the price fluctuations of the product or raw material, while sellers try to lock in a price for their products. Like in all financial markets, others use such contracts to gamble on price movements.

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Monarch Watch and the 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll

3 April 2015 | Author: Jim

National Park Foundation


Monarch Watch Joins with the National Park Foundation to Support the 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll


WASHINGTON (April 3, 2015) Monarch Watch announced today that it will contribute to the National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks, to support the 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll.

The White House Easter Egg Roll takes place in President’s Park on the South Lawn of the White House. This year’s theme, “#GimmeFive,” encourages Americans across the country to share five things they are doing to eat better, be more active, and lead a healthier life, and supports the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative to help kids grow up healthy and have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Monarch Watch is meeting the #GimmeFive challenge by: 1) inspiring kids to get outside and garden for monarchs and other pollinators, 2) encouraging people to plant milkweeds to increase the monarch population, 3) helping people draw connections between pollinators and our food system, 4) teaching kids about the importance of native habitats and 5) spreading the love for butterflies.

In addition, the official White House Easter Eggs, sold by the National Park Foundation and benefiting America’s national parks, are available at

Find more information about the National Park Foundation at Join the national park community by visiting and

Monarch Watch strives to provide the public with information about the biology of monarch butterflies and their spectacular migration, education about the need to create habitats for monarchs, and ways to use monarchs to further science education in schools. Monarch Watch leads the nationally recognized Monarch Waystation certification program and the Bring Back the Monarchs program, designed to address issue of restoring milkweeds to our landscape. Help Bring Back the Monarchs! Plant milkweed and nectar plants! Visit our website for more information:

The National Park Foundation is the official charity of America’s national parks and nonprofit partner to the National Park Service. Chartered by Congress in 1967, the National Park Foundation raises private funds to help PROTECT more than 84 million acres of national parks through critical conservation and preservation efforts, CONNECT all Americans with their incomparable natural landscapes, vibrant culture and rich history, and INSPIRE the next generation of park stewards. Find out more and become a part of the national park community at


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Free Lecture: Bringing Nature Home

17 February 2015 | Author: Monarch Watch

Douglas Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home: How you can sustain wildlife with native plants” is coming to Lawrence, KS on March 21st. It promises to be an inspiring evening. Monarch Watch has taken the lead to bring Douglas to the University of Kansas and coordinate the event, with the sponsorship of several other amazing organizations. The flyer below is also available in PDF format – please feel joint pain free to print and distribute it. We’ve also created a Facebook event so please feel free to share that as well.

tallamy lecture

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Monarch Conservation: Our Choices

28 January 2015 | Author: Chip Taylor

In an earlier posting to this blog I commented on the “Petition to protect the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) under the Endangered Species Act” (see Commentary: Recent Petition to Protect the Monarch Butterfly). The commentary included notes about the petition, the distinction between endangered and threatened (a distinction frequently ignored by the press), and the process a petition goes through from the time of submission to acceptance or rejection. I briefly touched on outcomes and finished with some thoughts on the urgent need for restoration. From these comments, it should have been clear that I do not endorse the petition. I avoided providing an explanation for my opposition but, given recent commentary on discussion lists and superficial coverage in the press, in which the reporters consistently fail to ask the hard questions, I have decided to come forth with some thoughts on the petition and to suggest an alternative to the for/against positions that dominate current discourse on this issue.


Our choices are based on the following three premises:

1) Monarchs are not threatened.

2) Monarchs are threatened.

3) Monarchs have declined due to habitat loss requiring large-scale funding of public-private partnerships (P3) to restore enough habitat to sustain the migration.

The potential outcomes associated with each premise are as follows.

1) Premise: Monarchs are not threatened.

We can argue that threatened status is not needed since there is enough milkweed left in the upper Midwest to produce an overwintering population of 3-4 hectares (Pleasants, pers. com.). We can also argue that the rebound in the population this year (from 33.5 million in 2014 to 56.5 million in 2015), indicates that threatened status and regulation are not needed at this time.

This position fails to recognize that milkweed/monarch habitat is declining at a rate of at least a million acres a year within the core breeding areas from Texas through the Upper Midwest (see Monarch Butterfly Recovery Plan).

A) Monarchs will continue to decline

B) The public will eventually lose interest in monarchs (out of sight out of mind) and the migration will become a memory.

2) Premise: Monarchs are threatened.

Plan A: Threatened status implements standard rules and regulations.

We can argue that the evidence summarized in the petition justifies classification of the monarch butterfly as a threatened species. If the evidence is sufficient and the premise is accepted, threatened status will come with lots of rules, regulations and interpretations. There are rules and regulations that apply to critical habitat on public and private lands and regulations that restrict the public’s access to the species or habitats in question. Many are asking the questions, “How will monarchs actually be protected by such a ruling? What will be the impact on landowners, citizen science programs, backyard rearing programs, collecting, commercial breeding and distribution of monarchs? (See definition of “taking” in footnote.) Will the federal government have the personnel and funds (100s of millions of dollars) to enforce restrictions and administer a habitat program that covers much of the United States?” Threatened status for the monarch will have consequences and these need to be carefully considered. It is important for all concerned to be aware of the impact threatened status might have on their relationship with monarchs.

A) Habitat protection and restoration will occur on both public and private lands and (i) lead to an increase in monarch numbers and a sustained migration or (ii) the scale of such efforts will be insufficient to protect the monarch migration

B) Milkweeds will be eradicated en masse on private lands before implementation of rules governing protection of milkweeds

C) Public interest in monarchs will decline following regulations restricting access to this species

D) Perceptions that the government will solve the “monarch problem” will diminish the public’s interest in creating habitats for monarchs

E) Constraints, particularly funding and personnel, will limit the prospect of saving the monarch migration

Plan B: Threatened status does not regulate critical habitat on private lands yet implements restoration partnerships with landowners.

Again, the presumption is that monarchs are threatened. In this case however, in recognition of the enormous task of tracking and monitoring milkweed/monarch habitats on private lands, and limited financial resources, attempts to protect critical milkweed habitats will be limited to public lands. Restoration of milkweed/monarch habitats on private lands will be accomplished through partnerships with landowners. Rules and regulations restricting public access to monarchs would still be implemented. Adoption of this approach also raises questions because the ability to form partnerships to restore habitat is likely to be constrained by various capacity issues such as funding and personnel.

A) Habitat protection and restoration by federal agencies will be implemented on public and private lands but will be limited by the ability to engage landowners in milkweed/monarch conservation. Given the lack of protection of critical habitats on private lands, the scale of such efforts would be less likely to protect the monarch migration

B) Public interest in monarchs will decline following regulations restricting access to this species

C) Constraints, particularly funding and personnel, will limit the prospect of saving the monarch migration.

3) Premise: Monarchs have declined due to habitat loss requiring large-scale funding of public-private partnerships (P3) to restore enough habitat to sustain the migration.

Implementing threatened status under the Endangered Species Act will hinder rather than assure survival of the monarch migration.

We can also argue, given that the monarch population is likely to continue declining in the coming years, the best way to restore milkweed/monarch habitats is through large-scale public-private partnerships (P3) – collaborative efforts rather than those driven by regulations. This approach emphasizes that what we need are programs that foster cooperation and restoration on both public and private lands. Implied in the premise is the notion that milkweed/monarch restoration needs to start immediately and that we can’t wait for a decision on the petition. The petition puts us in limbo since the earliest a decision would be made is in two years and a determination of its merits could be deferred for a number of years.

A) Habitat protection and restoration will occur on both public and private lands and (i) lead to an increase in monarchs numbers and a sustained migration or (ii) the scale of such efforts will be insufficient to protect the monarch migration

B) Beginning this season, an emphasis on grass-roots and large-scale campaigns will engage the public and feed into and facilitate large-scale habitat restoration

C) These programs will increase the number of citizens and private entities engaged in monarch conservation and conservation in general

D) The scale of this approach is more likely to lead to a larger and more stable monarch population than either plan 2A or 2B above.

Reasons for supporting choice 3 (P3) vs. plan 2A include the following:

1) The magnitude of the task is enormous and will create financial, management and personnel issues for already underfunded and understaffed agencies charged with protecting monarchs.

2) Restoration of milkweed/monarch habitat will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Funding a federal effort of this scale would require a substantial increase in the endangered species budget or reallocation of existing funds away from other endangered and threatened species endeavors to cover costs associated with monarch recovery. Given the present economy and political climate, it seems unlikely that congress will provide funds to cover the costs associated with milkweed/monarch restoration.

3) Landowners are very concerned about programs wherein government regulations dictate how they manage their lands. (Plan 2B would involve willing landowners, thus bypassing this concern).

4) Threatened status represents a governmental top-down approach to a conservation program and gives the impression that “protection” will be achieved by government actions alone.

5) Choice 3 is inclusive and recognizes that saving the monarch migration will require broad-based public (government) and private actions. This choice recognizes that monarch conservation is too big a task for either the public or private sector acting alone.

6) Collaboration is the only reasonable solution given the magnitude, cost and complexities associated with monarch conservation.

7) Choice 3 provides a better path for getting landowners and stakeholders to participate in monarch conservation. In particular, we need to engage the landowners (farmers and ranchers) and rural communities throughout the Upper Midwest (the source area for most monarchs that overwinter in Mexico) in monarch conservation. At the same time, we have to be sure that landowners in Texas maintain milkweeds that support the offspring of monarchs returning from Mexico each March and April.

8) There is uncertainty as to whether the petition will be acted on favorably in the near term or delayed for a decade or more. Monarchs can’t wait for this decision or implementation of an action plan such as plans 2A or 2B. We have to act now and we have to build the coalitions, partnerships, capacity, etc., to assure that the monarch migration continues. Large-scale restoration needs to begin this spring.

Although I favor Choice 3, the success of this approach, just as with 2A and 2B, would depend on the scale of the effort to protect and restore milkweed/monarch habitats. Sustaining the monarch migration will not be easy. Here is one example of a large-scale public-private partnership currently under development: USDA News Release – Farm Bill Initiative Marks New Era for Conservation efforts

Throughout this text I have focused on issues associated with restoration on public and private lands. Rules and regulations that limit access to monarchs are another concern but how these might be implemented is still an open question. Readers who are concerned about how such rules might affect them should read the petition carefully (Petition to protect the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) under the Endangered Species Act) and should submit comments accordingly (via eRulemaking Docket ID: FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056). Depending on what rules and regulations are adopted from the petition, or perhaps new ones suggested by an advisory committee, it is possible that many activities associated with monarchs would be prohibited or severely limited. It is also possible that some of the restrictions suggested in the petition would not be adopted. Restrictions are usually adopted to “protect” a species and the number of individuals in the population but, truthfully, in this case, due to the size and distribution of the monarch population and its reproductive capacity, adoption of such restrictions will have little impact on the size of the migration or the overwintering population. This issue is all about scale and biology and the question is whether human activities such as backyard breeding, commercial activities, etc., are of sufficient scope and scale to impact an abundant and highly mobile species with a high reproductive rate. The decision makers should carefully consider the strength of the scientific evidence apart from the rhetoric on these issues.

The following are some of the questions that have concerned me about the petition. In addition to these questions, for which there are presently few answers, my preference for public-private partnerships, rather than threatened status, is based on participation in a number of high level meetings with scientists, experts from federal agencies, conversations with representatives of various NGOs and persons representing agricultural interests and industry. My sense is that monarch conservation is moving in the direction of public-private partnerships – irrespective of the petition requesting threatened status for the monarch.

Questions relevant to the petition

General questions

What is meant by the word “protection” in the context of protecting the monarch migration?

What would be protected and how would specific actions protect monarchs?

If the government is required by the Endangered Species Act to restore habitats for monarchs, what would be involved?

Assuming that the goal is to protect critical habitat, how do we define critical habitat?

Assuming we can identify and protect critical habitat on public lands, what would that mean for private lands?

How much land needs to be restored each year to compensate for the annual losses of milkweed/monarch habitats due to development, increase in crop acreage and other forms of land degradation? (Annual losses in the milkweed/monarch corridor are estimated to be at least a million acres per year – see Monarch Butterfly Recovery Plan).

How much land would have to be restored to bring the monarch back to a more stable population size – i.e., a population large enough to be able to survive catastrophic overwintering mortality and poor breeding seasons? Since most of these annual losses occur on private lands, how could threatened status be used to restore milkweeds to these or comparable sites? Who would monitor the habitat losses and who would follow up with appropriate remediation? How would this be coordinated and how would it be paid for?

How much does it cost to restore an acre of milkweed/monarch habitat? Depending on the method, costs of restoration and maintenance of milkweeds and nectar plants range from $100-$1000 per acre. If we need to compensate for the loss of a million acres per year in the milkweed/monarch corridor, the restoration alone could cost 100 million dollars per year and there would be additional millions associated with administrative costs as well. Who would cover those costs, especially if most of the restoration occurred on private lands? And, again, what sort of incentives and agreements would be needed between the government and landowners to accomplish this restoration? Further, do we have the capacity (e.g., seed stocks) for large-scale restoration and who would do it – federal, state or private restoration teams?

Going beyond the 1 million acres per year, how would the restoration of additional millions of acres be accomplished? And, how many millions are we talking about? Estimates are that 167 million acres of milkweed/monarch habitat have been lost since the introduction of GMO crops in 1997 and the signing of the ethanol mandate in late 2007. How much habitat needs to be restored to offset enough of this loss to create a population of sufficient size (4-5 hectare overwintering population) to be able to sustain losses due to extreme weather at the overwintering sites, or temperatures during March and April in the South Region (TX, OK and southern KS), or during extreme cold or warm summers in the Upper Midwest? Do we need to restore 5, 10 or 15 million acres? And, again, at what cost and who is going to do it and how much would involve public vs. private lands? Aside from capacity issues (seeds, manpower, equipment, etc.) would the federal government have the personnel, the infrastructure and the 100s of millions of dollars necessary to achieve the levels of restoration needed to sustain the monarch population?

Questions based on the assumption that plan 2A would be adopted

Would developers be blocked from developing due to the presence of milkweeds on properties they would like to develop? The rate of conversion of landscapes to development (housing, malls, industrial parks, etc.) is approximately 2 million acres per year – of which 1.24 million acres are rural lands (Farmland Information Center statistics).

If development involved displacement of milkweeds, would the developer be required to restore milkweeds in new areas? Who would coordinate these arrangements?

What types of incentives and agreements would be needed to get private land-owners to restore milkweeds and nectar plants to their properties?

How would existing milkweed stands on private lands be identified within the northern breeding area and throughout the milkweed/monarch corridor from Texas to the border with Canada. And, once identified, how would milkweed sites on private lands be protected? Would there be penalties for not properly maintaining milkweed patches on private land or purposefully destroying such patches?

Questions based on the assumption that plan 2B would be adopted

Plan 2B would be much like Choice 3 but would include various but, as yet undetermined, restrictions on the public’s access to monarchs. At issue here is the question about the size of the Federal effort. Would federal agencies have sufficient funds and personnel to cover a significant portion of the costs needed to restore the monarch population? This question takes us back to the magnitude of the effort needed to restore the monarch population. Habitat for monarchs is critically low. There is no excess habitat. The monarch population will continue to decline if we fail to recognize the annual rate of habitat loss (a million acres/year) and to offset these losses with restoration.

What’s the best plan for saving the monarch migration?

Which of the choices above gives us the best chance of saving the monarch migration? My money is on Choice 3 – public-private partnerships (P3). However, for this effort to be successful, we need a multitude of large-scale public-private partnerships that focus on the restoration of milkweed/monarch habitats from the Upper Midwest through central Texas. Further, we need to enhance monarch habitats throughout the United States.

There are many other questions and numerous long-term issues that neither the petition nor these comments address. That said, the most important question is – how can we slow down and even reverse the decline in monarch numbers? Given that we are losing at least a million acres of critical habitat a year, we can’t wait for a decision on the petition. We have to act NOW!

Definitions from the Endangered Species Act of 1973

The term “threatened species” means any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

The term “endangered species” means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

The term “take” means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.

(5)(A) The term “critical habitat” for a threatened or endangered species means—
(i) the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species, at the time it is listed in accordance with the provisions of section 4 of this Act, on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection; and
(ii) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed in accordance with the provisions of section 4 of this Act, upon a determination by the Secretary that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species.
(B) Critical habitat may be established for those species now listed as threatened or endangered species for which no critical habitat has heretofore been established as set forth in subparagraph (A) of this paragraph.
(C) Except in those circumstances determined by the Secretary, critical habitat shall not include the entire geographical area which can be occupied by the threatened or endangered species.

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Monarch Population Status

27 January 2015 | Author: Chip Taylor

World Wildlife Mexico in collaboration with SEMARNAT and CONANP and the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) announced the total forest area occupied by overwintering monarch colonies early this morning in Mexico City. Nine colonies were located this winter season with a total area of 1.13 hectares. Although this figure represents an improvement from the 0.67 hectares recorded last year, it’s the second lowest population on record and the third low population in as many years. Populations of this size are extremely vulnerable. Winter storms or poor conditions for breeding in the spring and summer could have a severe impact on a population of this size. If there are no winter storms in the next three weeks and conditions are favorable as the monarchs move northward in March to Texas, the long range forecasts suggest that the population has a good chance of increasing again next year.

Figure 1. Total Area Occupied by Monarch Colonies at Overwintering Sites in Mexico

We will provide additional details as we receive and process them – in the meantime, the official press release (in Spanish) is available to view/download here: COMUNICADO-MARIPOSA-MONARCA-2015.pdf

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Monarch Population Status: Addendum

2 September 2014 | Author: Chip Taylor

As an addendum to our Monarch Population Status report posted on 29 July 2014, I offer the following:

Reports from throughout the breeding range indicate an increase in monarch numbers roughly along the lines projected in May. The migration is already underway having started at 50 N around the 12th of August. The leading edge should be in southern MN at this time and in Ames, IA around the 6th of Sept. Fall roosts have been reported to Journey North in the Dakotas, MN, WI, MI and NY as of 28 August. No roosts had been recorded by the 29th of August last year (see Monarch Roosts Fall 2013 and Monarch Roosts Fall 2014). There will surely be more monarchs to tag over the next two months and the overwintering population in Mexico is certain to be larger. At a minimum, I expect the population to be twice as large as last year or roughly 1.4 hectares but it could be twice that size. We still have to hear about monarchs from many areas and the conditions during the migration will likely determine how many of the migrants reach the overwintering sites. It will help to watch the reports of overnight clusters recorded by Journey North and to watch the weather conditions and note the availability of nectar sources as monarchs migrate through the United States and northern Mexico.

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Commentary: Recent Petition to Protect the Monarch Butterfly

2 September 2014 | Author: Chip Taylor

On August 26th 2014, The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, The Xerces Society, and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted a petition to the Secretary of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that the monarch butterfly be granted threatened status under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The petition is quite thorough (159 pages) and details evidence of the decline in monarch numbers, the numerous causes for the decline and the large number of threats to the population due to natural (parasites and predators) and human related causes ranging from pesticides to climate change. It’s an excellent summary of information those of us interested in monarchs should be familiar with. The full petition can be found at

The petition has generated a great deal of discussion via social media, our discussion list (Dplex-L) and among groups as diverse as collectors, amateur butterfly enthusiasts and commercial butterfly breeders. There is a great deal of concern as to how threatened status would affect how we all interact with monarchs whether it would be through collecting, rearing, tagging or various forms of monitoring. These concerns are heightened by the presumption that a decision on this petition could happen soon. Further, there is some confusion about the terminology and process involved in designating a species as endangered or threatened.

The following paragraphs are intended to help clarify some of the issues associated with the petition.

We need to be clear on the terminology.

“An ‘endangered species’ is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A ‘threatened species’ is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” (

Monarchs clearly aren’t endangered. This petition requests threatened status for the monarch based on the presumption that the monarch migration is threatened due to the loss of a significant portion of its breeding range in the upper Midwest, i.e. the corn belt. But, is it? That’s a matter of evidence and interpretation. As this discussion proceeds, we need to make it clear in all communications that it’s about the migration and not the species per se.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to respond to the petition. It’s likely they will accept the petition for further evaluation and will set a date for a public comment period that will start in about 15 months. This will be followed by further evaluation, perhaps requests for additional data, etc. Most of these petitions require lengthy reviews and revisions. Due to the large number of petitions for threatened and endangered status for a wide range of plants and animals, the significant number of high priority cases under consideration and personnel limitations at Fish and Wildlife, it could be many years, 5 at a minimum, possibly 10 or more, unless the monarch decline accelerates, before a determination is made as to whether monarchs are deserving of threatened status.

A schematic of the process can be found at

petition process

A key statement is the following:
“A positive one-year finding can be incorporated into a proposed listing or, if a prompt proposal is precluded by other listing activities, the proposal may be deferred. These ‘warranted but precluded’ proposals require subsequent one-year findings on each succeeding anniversary of the petition until either a proposal is undertaken or a ‘not warranted’ finding is made.”

My understanding is that most proposals of this type are repeatedly deferred – some for as long as 20 years.

Petitions of this sort can have both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, they tend to rally the advocates, draw broader attention to real conservation problems and attract funding that can help mitigate the problem. On the other hand, private landowners and other groups that have an interest in the status quo often challenge such proposed conservation measures. The fear of regulation, or the possibility of the government telling landowners what they can and can’t do with their land, rallies the opposition. This polarization can become political. There are a number of ongoing battles along these lines. Monarch conservation needs to remain apolitical and will be best served if we engage landowners rather than drive them away. The petition ends with a request for critical habitat designation (p 113). With statements such as “‘Of equal or more importance is the determination of the habitat necessary for that species’ continued existence… If the protection of endangered and threatened species depends in large measure on the preservation of the species’ habitat, then the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat.’ H. Rep. No. 94-887 at 3 (1976).” But nowhere in this section, or elsewhere, is it clear what critical habitat means in the case of monarch butterflies or how it might be designated and protected. Designations of critical habitat will have to be carefully crafted to avoid a backlash from landowners.

Habitat restoration
It is clear, as we have pointed out many times, that the monarch population is in decline due to loss of habitat. The petition is all about protection and covers habitat loss in great detail. However, protection alone will not stop the decline in monarch numbers. Unless we collectively address the annual loss of habitat with a significant recovery plan that restores at least 1-1.5 million acres of milkweed/monarch habitat per year – the eastern monarch migration will dwindle further to the point where it will be truly threatened. It’s been evident for some time that, petition or not, we have to restore habitats for monarchs. (

Monarch Watch is engaged with a large number of colleagues in discussions about how to provide more habitat for monarchs. The White House supports these initiatives through the Presidential Memorandum of 20 June. We are making progress with these discussions, and the goal is to implement broader conservation measures by next spring. If we (the monarch community in general) can create the needed partnerships and collaborations and obtain significant funding, the monarch migration can be saved. Saving the monarch migration is one of the easier conservation challenges we face. Let’s do it!

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Monarch Population Status

29 July 2014 | Author: Chip Taylor

Those of you who follow monarchs closely are aware that the monarch population has been declining for the last 10 years with significant drops in the population each of the last three years. The number of trees and total area occupied by monarchs in the oyamel fir forests in Mexico was at an all time low last winter – a mere 0.67 hectares. This decline has given rise to a great deal of concern about the future of the monarch migration. These concerns have resulted in many meetings and plans, and even a Presidential Memorandum directing federal agencies to devote resources to offset the decline in monarchs and pollinators. We have addressed this issue through our Monarch Waystation, Bring Back the Monarchs and Milkweed Market programs. These programs are growing but they need to become much, much larger to sustain the monarch migration. Large-scale habitat restoration, particularly in the upper Midwest, also needs to become a priority. In the meantime, we need to keep tagging monarchs as a way of monitoring their numbers and tracking any shifts in the origins of monarchs that reach Mexico. If you are a long-term tagger, you know it has been increasingly difficult to find enough monarchs to tag, especially during the last two years. The totals tagged each year roughly parallel the numbers recorded in Mexico each winter, giving us an independent assessment of the numbers in the migration. Regional tagging success also helps in that it demonstrates how monarchs respond to the physical conditions and quality of the habitats in these areas. Thus, tagging is an important tool to help us understand the overall dynamics of the monarch population.

So what should we expect this year? I usually like to wait until August to make predictions about the numbers in the migration and avoid bold assertions about the size of the overwintering population until well into the migration. However, this year I’m on record as early as the 3rd of May on our discussion list Dplex-L as predicting that there will be a modest increase in the number of monarchs in the migration and at the overwintering sites this winter. “Modest increase” is a vague term and I can’t put a number to it; however, all of the factors I’ve researched indicate that there will be more monarchs migrating this fall and at the overwintering locations by mid December when the colonies are measured. All in all things are looking up for monarchs this year.

Here is a brief overview of factors supporting my prediction of a modest increase in the number of monarchs this fall:

1. I looked at reports from those visiting the overwintering sites about the mortality seen at the colony locations. I also watched the weather in Mexico to be sure that there were no unusual weather events at the overwintering sites that would contribute to mortality. Fortunately, though the population was low, it seemed to winter well.

2. I followed the first sightings reported to Journey North and monitored, as closely as I could, the conditions of the milkweed and flowering of nectar sources in Texas. Since lower than normal temperatures in Texas in March and early April are also associated with an increase in the population, I monitored the temperatures in the region as well. Again, all the signs pointed to a slight growth in the population.

3. The temperatures during May and early June are another key to population growth. These temperatures largely determine when the first generation monarchs coming out of Texas and Oklahoma will reach the northern breeding area. Past records have shown that the timing of arrival of these monarchs in the north (i.e., >40N) is also critical. First sightings suggested fair numbers arrived during the critical period in the upper Midwest, smaller numbers arrived later in MI, OH and ONT and, still later, even fewer reaching the New England area. All of which suggested that most of the increase would come from the upper Midwest assuming that summer temperatures were normal or above normal.

4. A look at the longer-term temperatures suggested that normal temperatures could be expected over most of the northern breeding area, further supporting my optimistic outlook through May and early June.

5. The reports so far this July have not been disappointing. The 4th of July butterfly counts supported by the North American Butterfly Association, and other counts, have generally reported better numbers of monarchs in their surveys than last year.

Good luck with your tagging and thanks to everyone that participates in our programs!

ADDENDUM: 2 September 2014

Reports from throughout the breeding range indicate an increase in monarch numbers roughly along the lines projected in May. The migration is already underway having started at 50 N around the 12th of August. The leading edge should be in southern MN at this time and in Ames, IA around the 6th of Sept. Fall roosts have been reported to Journey North in the Dakotas, MN, WI, MI and NY as of 28 August. No roosts had been recorded by the 29th of August last year (see Monarch Roosts Fall 2013 and Monarch Roosts Fall 2014). There will surely be more monarchs to tag over the next two months and the overwintering population in Mexico is certain to be larger. At a minimum, I expect the population to be twice as large as last year or roughly 1.4 hectares but it could be twice that size. We still have to hear about monarchs from many areas and the conditions during the migration will likely determine how many of the migrants reach the overwintering sites. It will help to watch the reports of overnight clusters recorded by Journey North and to watch the weather conditions and note the availability of nectar sources as monarchs migrate through the United States and northern Mexico.

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