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Monarch migration in peril

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Greg Peck
February 6, 2014

Seen any monarch butterflies flitting about lately? I don't mean today or this winter, but last summer or fall? Each year, it seems, I see fewer and fewer. A new report confirms my perceptions. The Associated Press says this stunning and little-understood migration of millions to wintering grounds in Mexico could disappear. Numbers have dropped to their lowest level since record-keeping started in 1993.

What are the causes? Well, illegal logging of trees in the pine and fir forests west of Mexico City doesn't help. Monarchs covered 44.5 acres at their recorded peak in 1996. That dwindled to just 2.93 acres last winter, and the butterflies cover just 1.65 acres this season.

Other factors, experts say, include urban sprawl and genetically modified crops displacing the food sources and the milkweed that monarch caterpillars need. Extreme weather trends also are a factor, experts say.

There is a morsel of good news, however. Scientists say the monarch isn't at risk of extinction because the species inhabits many parts of the world. But because most of those wintering near Mexico City migrate from the U.S. Midwest, we might see fewer and fewer around here.

My friend and Gazette colleague Anna Marie Lux visited those monarch wintering grounds more than a decade ago. She described for Gazette readers a bone-jarring ride up a dirt road to the El Rosario Monarch Sanctuary, where some 50,000 tourists came each year to view this miracle at 10,000 feet. For years she had read about this “magic circle in the mountains,” and she joined other visitors to witness it.

“I wanted to run,” she wrote. “But the steep incline and sudden realization that butterflies were pouring from the mountaintop stopped me.

“The monarchs tumbled down by the hundreds, then the thousands, to the meadows around us, bouncing onto wild snapdragons and drinking from the florets.

“We walked slowly, speaking only in whispers, as though commanded by some greater sense of propriety.

“We looked up and saw more and more of the tiny black-etched wings above us, making a sound like the patter of gentle rain.

“We glanced down, and their shadows bounced around on the dusty path. We stared at the vaulting oyamel trees of the forest. I gasped in disbelief at what I was seeing.

“Millions of butterflies had wrapped themselves to the firs, until the branches hung down heavy and black. From a distance, the sleeping monarchs, with their wings closed, looked like masses of pale, dead leaves.

“But as the sun warmed their wings, they woke and broke loose from the colony, creating a translucent, orange cascade falling to Earth. The fiery motes on their wings glistened in the morning light.

“We stopped, overwhelmed with the sight, our arms and heads stretched skyward. I laughed at the tickle of wings on my hands, neck and cheeks.

“Butterfly kisses.

“Gentle.

“Fleeting. …”

Fleeting, indeed. That Associated Press story also caught the attention of Tom Murn, a full-time natural landscaper since 1989 who teaches landscaping/horticulture classes at Blackhawk Technical College. Knowing I had blogged about monarchs previously, he sent me an email.

“I don't know whether the Janesville noxious weed ordinance mentions milkweed, however in googling the subject, I did come up with last September's initiative by a citizen in Neenah to get their municipal noxious weed ordinance changed, to allow milkweed,” Murn wrote.

“Although the problem with butterfly habitat is pronounced in developed areas—chemical use, no habitat—it's even more pronounced in rural areas—more chemical use, less habitat. On the poor monarch, the canary in the coal mine, I can use the old Pogo saw—we have met the enemy, and he is us.

“Or, I could simply point out the obvious, that customers choosing small sustainable ag producers, and choosing sustainable landscaping, will solve the problem.”

Well, maybe not solve the problem absent change in Mexico, as well, but at least we would be doing what we can on our end.

Larry and Emily Scheunemann, a rural Whitewater couple, are doing more than their share. Last year, Lux wrote about the Scheunemanns, who gently tag the butterflies for Monarch Watch to help scientists understand the timing and pace of the migration. Since moving to their farm in 1988, the couple created a 30-acre monarch oasis by planting lush nectar-producers, including New England asters, purple coneflowers and butterfly weed. They invited the public to observe the tagging program last September.

If you missed it and care at all about the monarchs, this couple will speak on the topic for the Kettle Moraine chapter of Wild Ones at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at South Kettle Moraine State Forest Headquarters, S91W39091 Highway 59.

It might be time well spent as we endure these final weeks of winter and await what few monarchs will fly back to the Midwest this spring.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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