Usually, western monarch butterflies spend November through February in groves along the coast of California and start heading north to breed in February, March, and April. But researchers don't know much about what the butterflies are up to during these months—and that info can be critical to helping them save the species, whose populations have massively declined in the past 20 years. So the team at Western Monarch Count is asking for the public's help. Today until Earth Day (April 22) if you're west of the Rocky Mountains and see any monarch butterflies outside of their overwintering sites, take a picture.
Any and all photos of monarchs will do, whether you see one butterfly or multiple. And no need to be a pro: even blurry pics or those taken from far away will be accepted (just be sure to include the date and location). Send your images to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper through their app, iNaturalist, or by emailing MonarchMystery@wsu.edu. Researchers are especially interested in sightings of monarchs throughout California and in western Oregon and Nevada. They will use the photos as data to help track monarchs as they leave overwintering groves in California and head to breeding grounds throughout the west.
According to Cheryl Schultz, one of the lead researchers for the project and a biologist at Washington State University, a good start to the breeding season in early spring can lead to a huge spread of monarchs through states like Idaho and Washington, and even up to Southern British Columbia. But with recent population declines, researchers haven't seen western monarchs spreading out as far as before. "To recover the wild population, it is important to understand what monarchs need in early spring so that they can successfully migrate and breed," Schultz says. "Knowing where they are will help us put together plans to help the population recover."
In addition to helping researchers learn more about monarch movements, you can also win prizes by participating. Each photo you submit counts as an entry into a weekly drawing for prizes like gift cards to REI and Patagonia, and you can enter each week during the challenge.
No matter where you live, you can help the monarch population by planting milkweed, the only plant monarchs use for laying their eggs. Fully-grown monarchs also appreciate nectar-filled plants like lantana, verbena, and yarrow for food (and their flowers will brighten up your garden, too). Helping the monarch population recover is a big job, but individual gardeners can make an impact anywhere in the country just by growing a few monarch-friendly plants.