Rapid Decline in Monarch Butterfly Population Signals the Need for a Renewed Landscape Ethic

In the autumn of 1813, American ornithologist John James Audubon watched a flock of passenger pigeons fly over the Ohio countryside. He described the numbers as so numerous it darkened the sky and took more than three days for the entire flock to pass overhead. It’s estimated that three to five billion passenger pigeons were in the United States when Europeans arrived in North America. In nearly the blink of an eye, the species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world to complete extinction in 1914. This astonishing elimination of a seemingly bountiful species was attributed to overhunting and loss of habitat.

On this 100th year anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction, could a species as familiar and iconic as the monarch butterfly be on a similar path to extinction before our very eyes? Since 1993, monarch populations have declined nearly 90%. Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the popular orange-and-black butterfly may warrant federal Endangered Species Act protections tied to declines in cross-country migrations because of farm-related habitat loss.

To understand some of the reasons behind the dramatic decline and what we can do to help this and other species, you have to know a little about the monarch’s life cycle. Monarchs make long distance migrations from Canada to Mexico, where adults eventually return to ancestral pine and fir forests to spend the winter. The annual migration cycle is unique in the natural world because it spans multiple generations and no single individual lives to make the entire round trip. Mexico has been able to essentially stop illegal logging in the monarch protected reserve, leaving habitat loss in the United States as a huge problem.

Critical habitat loss along the rest of the monarch’s long distance journey centers around widespread elimination of the once abundant milkweed plant. Butterflies lay eggs on the plant, and emerging caterpillars feed on the leaves prior to their amazing transformation of pupa, to chrysalis to butterfly in under 30 days. It is still not fully known how newly hatched monarchs know to continue the journey north. The transformation of eggs to butterfly on the milkweed plant happens three separate times in their journey north. The longer lived fourth generation then makes the 2,800 mile trip back to the protective mountain forests in Mexico. The life cycle is an amazing journey that most people are not aware of.

Milkweed, the butterflies’ “host plant” and main source of food has been nearly eliminated across the entire Midwest where most monarchs are born. Research shows Iowa was a key state for those making it back to Mexico. Most evidence points to roundup, a potent killer of milkweed, as the main reason for the rapid monarch decline. The dramatic surge in roundup use with “roundup ready” crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in corn and soybean fields. This is easy to see as you drive across Iowa as nearly every field is completely devoid of plants other than the intended crop, which spans from road ditch to road ditch. The modern day roundup/GMO combination has no doubt made it easier for growing crops, but has left the landscape devoid of plants needed for food and habitat by other wildlife and insect species. Some local farmers in Clayton County also point to the rapid loss of pasture and other small patches of habitat where milkweed once grew. Roadside spray and excessive mowing along roadway ditches and waterways has been another factor associated with eradication of milkweed and other important pollinator plant species.

Promoting a Renewed Landscape Ethic: Giving Something Back

The dramatic decline of the monarch is a sign of habitat loss reaching a critical breaking point. At the time Audubon described the massive flock of passenger pigeons in 1813, the landscape in Iowa was covered with diverse tall grass prairies, wetlands, and vast unbroken hardwood forests. Occupying the land was a diversity of native people, plants, and abundant wildlife. Evidence of this diversity is found throughout Clayton County in the form of artifacts of native people or in the remains of elk antlers left behind on gravel bars of the Volga and Turkey rivers. Iowa’s once richly diverse landscape is often considered one of the most rapidly altered ecosystems in the world. This highly altered landscape goes mostly unrecognized, especially among the youngest generations who seem more focused on the small screen in front of them than on a patch of habitat that suddenly disappears. Now picture the loss of a once diverse landscape from the perspective of a migrating butterfly. It would be like a bridge out with no other way to complete the vital journey needed for survival of your species. A renewed landscape ethic must begin with an awareness of the consequences to other species of the natural diversity being lost over time. Voluntarily replacing a portion of that diversity is the first step toward a renewed landscape ethic of giving something back.

In our modern age of ever expanding economic and agricultural demands on the local landscape, the habitat needs of something as simple as a monarch butterfly is probably not high on the priority list for most. The true value of a diverse landscape and the species it supports usually doesn’t have a line on the economic spreadsheet. Only an informed community that understands the true value of these species and their habitat can make a healthy and diverse landscape a priority. The plight of the monarch is an opportunity for us to recognize the need to give something back to our local landscape as landowners and communities.

Giving something back can be as simple as preserving a few acres of habitat along a fence line or changing how we manage hundreds of acres of public right of way in road ditches throughout the county and state. Other simple things people can do to enhance monarchs and other wildlife include putting aside small less productive farmland as habitat or planting milkweed patches as part of waterways, food plots and flower gardens. If you plant milkweed, they will come. Adding milkweed to new or established CRP plantings could have widespread benefits on land already being set-a-side for conservation. Milkweed is currently not part of seed mixes for newly enrolled CRP habitat that will be planted this coming spring. Re-establishing or protecting areas of diverse habitat along the entire migration route is crucial to ensure monarchs and other species are around for future generations to enjoy.

Obtaining milkweed seed to plant

A simple thing anyone can do is to plant milkweeds, the host plant. Monarchs born from your plants could be the ones that make it back to Mexico to complete their migration. Milkweed seed can be obtained from a number of online sources. Plans are also being made to have seed and small started plants available through Pheasants Forever and the Clayton County Conservation Awareness Network (CAN).

For further reading on the concept of land ethic: The concept of the Land Ethic was developed by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac. In this book, Leopold reflected upon his interaction with the land and how it had enriched him, but also how our society tends to trivialize or dismiss the role of the land. “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” – Aldo Leopold

Gary Siegwarth is habitat chairman for Clayton County Pheasants Forever and a member of the Clayton County Conservation Awareness Network.