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Planting Milkweed to Save Monarch Butterfly from Extinction

The population of eastern monarch butterflies has decreased by 90 percent in recent decades. (ulleo/Pixabay)
The population of eastern monarch butterflies has decreased by 90 percent in recent decades. (ulleo/Pixabay)
May 29, 2018

ALBANY, N.Y. — Wildlife experts say the "king" of butterflies could go the way of the passenger pigeon unless people step in to plant more of the insect's only food source, milkweed.

The monarch butterfly population has crashed, according to Naomi Edelson, senior director of wildlife partnerships with the National Wildlife Federation. She said it can only be revived with a conservation strategy that improves its habitat by increasing its food supply.

The eastern monarch population has declined 90 percent in recent decades. And Edelson said she believes we'll miss them when they're gone.

"They're at such a low level that if there are some very big, severe storms during the winter, in their wintering grounds in Mexico, we could lose them completely,” Edelson said.

During the caterpillar stage, monarchs live exclusively on milkweed plants. The National Wildlife Federation encourages planting milkweed in natural areas, agricultural lands and backyards to improve habitats.

Edelson pointed to the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy, covering 16 states from Texas to Ohio, as a blueprint for reversing the decline in monarch habit. It includes planting at least 1.3 billion stems of milkweed.

"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,” she said. “And so there's no more room for the milkweed."

She noted that pollinators like monarch butterflies are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat.

Edelson said she worries the decline in monarch butterflies is reminiscent of the fate 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."

In 2014, a petition was filed to protect the monarch butterfly under the federal Endangered Species Act. A decision on that request is expected in 2019.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY