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home : education : schools May 26, 2018

5/8/2018 1:22:00 PM
Understanding the plight of the western monarch butterfly
Rhiannon & Annabella James checking out a bigger-than-life-size Monarch caterpillar. photo by Sue Anderson
+ click to enlarge
Rhiannon & Annabella James checking out a bigger-than-life-size Monarch caterpillar. photo by Sue Anderson

By Jim Anderson

With all the traffic rolling into the Sisters Middle School parking area last Saturday, one would have thought school was in session. What was really going on was a meeting of butterfly people on the welfare of the monarch butterfly and other pollinators.

More than 100 people attended, some from as far away as Seattle, Boise, and Northern California.

The idea of a monarch butterfly conference was the brainchild of local author Jean Nave and Sisters Middle School teacher Susie Werts, who worked with students on producing the book "Journey's Flight," which chronicled the travels of a monarch butterfly raised by the students and released with an identifying tag in September of 2016.

The butterfly made an epic record-setting trip all the way to Southern California.

At Saturday's conference, monarch groups from all over the Northwest presented their recovery projects and results. Area government agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Monarch Advocates of Central Oregon (MACO) have been active in planting hundreds of milkweed seedlings and creating monarch waystations, which include both host and nectar plants for the at-risk butterflies.

Many local volunteer groups have participated in these planting events, including Friends and Neighbors of Deschutes Canyon (FANS); Great Old Broads for Wilderness; Soul River, Inc. and agency personnel.

The three-hour discussion explored results of conservation efforts to date and allowed for brainstorming ideas for future monitoring, maintenance, reporting, rearing, tagging and education programs.

Keynote speaker Dr. David James, an entomology professor from Washington State University, presented his work. Dr. James began a monarch rearing and tagging project at Walla Walla Penitentiary that has been popular with the inmates as well as providing valuable information on monarch movements. He also leads a citizen-scientist-operated tagging program for both wild and hand-reared monarchs.

Professor James introduced statistics that revealed why the USF&WS has been entertaining the idea of placing the butterfly on the Endangered Species List. He doesn't think this would happen, in spite of current data demonstrating the dangerous drop in numbers of monarchs wintering in Mexico and on the preserves along the west coast of Southern California. One graph showed nearly a billion monarchs in the U.S. in 1997; by 2016 the numbers had dropped to only 33 million.

He stated that the drop in the butterfly's food plant, milkweed, and food for nectaring during migration were the major reasons for the dramatic decline in monarch populations. In addition to food shortage, severe storms impacting survival of larva, lack of shade and roost trees, and GMO food crops and the use of pesticides in both commercial agricultural and private plant production areas, have all had a significant negative effect on monarch survival, as well as the use of deadly neonicitenoid insecticides.

The tagging operation is well underway with both wild and artificially raised monarchs, and has already revealed some strange paths that some monarchs have taken. One wayward monarch made a one-way 439-mile trip from the California coast to interior Idaho, which was completely out of the norm.

The big message Dr. James left with everyone at the conference is that the principle way we can help monarch recovery projects is to grow locally sourced milkweed. Free seed packets were available for conference attendees to take home.

Werts wrapped up the conference with a recap of her project and how using a threatened insect and hands-on purposeful gardening enhanced the reading and writing skills of her students and brought the Sisters community together for a remarkable endeavor.

In the spirit of the monarch-related projects the City of Sisters recently approved a new pollinator park, not far from the post office. It will occupy a key role in providing host and nectar plants for pollinators, especially the monarch. The half-acre parcel will have educational material to inform visitors and residents of the importance of these often-neglected insects to healthy ecosystems. Forms to submit a name for the park are available at City Hall and Sisters Middle School.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2018
Article comment by: Paul Cherubini

On the one hand the article claims the main cause of the decline of the western monarch population is due to landscape scale reductions in milkweed plant abundance on agricultural lands, yet on the other hand the article suggests this massive loss of milkweed abundance could potentially be "recovered" via hobbyist's planting comparatively miniscule quantities of milkweed in their home gardens. Is that a realistic view of the situation?

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