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Midwest Needs "All Hands on Deck" to Save Monarch Butterfly

The population of America's most well-known butterfly has declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years. (Pixabay:leoleobobeo)
The population of America's most well-known butterfly has declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years. (Pixabay:leoleobobeo)
May 21, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa — Wildlife officials say the king of butterflies could go the way of the passenger pigeon unless people step in and plant more of the monarch caterpillars' only food source, milkweed.

The monarch butterfly population has crashed, according to Naomi Edelson, senior director of the National Wildlife Federation, and can only be revived with a conservation strategy that improves its habitat by increasing its food supply. The eastern monarch population, which is found east of the Rocky Mountains, has declined 90 percent in recent decades.

Edelson said she knows we'll miss them when they're gone.

"I know people can see hundreds of them come through their own backyards,” Edelson said. “And they're at such a low level that if there are some very big severe storms in the winter in their wintering grounds in Mexico, we could lose them completely."

The Wildlife Federation supports the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy that provides a blueprint for reversing the decline by improving habitats in natural areas, on agricultural lands and homeowners' backyards. Public comments on the conservation plan are being accepted through May 31 at

The mid-America monarch migration route includes 16 states from Texas to North Dakota and east to Ohio. Edelson said during that time, milkweed is the butterfly’s only food source.

"We have lost all the little strands of milkweed which usually grow up in the ditches and in between the different crops because we're so good now at producing food, and so there's no more room for the milkweed,” she said.

Edelson said she worries the decline in monarch butterflies is reminiscent of the era of the passenger pigeon.

"We had millions of passenger pigeons all across the country and we lost it completely; there's no more passenger pigeons,” she said. “And the monarch's a similar species that you could never expect we would not have it."

The passenger pigeon population went from billions in the late 1880s to zero 50 years later due to uncontrolled hunting. In 2014, the monarch butterfly was petitioned for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, and a decision on whether listing is warranted is expected in 2019.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - IA