Monarch populations plummet, Utahns work to save the insect

OGDEN, Utah (ABC4) — The monarch butterfly is a symbol of summer. However, it may be more elusive this summer than it has been in recent history.

There are two major populations: the western monarch and the eastern monarch. Both populations are currently experiencing unprecedented declines. In Utah, people are working to create safe havens across the state for the butterfly as it makes its annual migration.

Chances are you don’t associate winter with butterflies, but Friends of Monarchs says now is the perfect time to start planting milkweed, which is the plant crucial for the survival of the monarch butterfly. In fact, the organization is working with Future Farmers of America programs at high schools across Utah to get seeds in the ground before the monarch butterflies start migrating to the Beehive State.

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“I was out in the yard one day and wondered why I never see them anymore,” Rachel Taylor told ABC4 News. The Utah native and Friends of Monarchs founder has a deep love for one of the most iconic insects on the planet and has for decades. “So, I started growing some milkweed to see if I could attract them and low and behold I could.”

Taylor said that as her ventures growing different varieties of native milkweed plants started to really succeed, others began hearing of her success and started reaching out. “Before long, two or three years into it, I was growing milkweed in my dining room for some of Salt Lake City’s parks, for people in the neighborhood, for friends,” stated Taylor. She quickly outgrew her kitchen and started the nonprofit Friends of Monarchs to get milkweed seeds to as many people as possible who were looking to create monarch way stations.

Fairmont Park is home to some of her homegrown milkweed. Today, even with snow on the ground, small pollinator gardens dot the park. Taylor told ABC4 that in midsummer, those gardens are filled with all kinds of pollinators including monarchs which lay their eggs on the plants.

Taylor is currently expanding her efforts. She recently began reaching out to FFA programs at high schools across the state to get milkweed seeds into their greenhouses. She has around a dozen schools that have already jumped on board. However, as her organization grows, so does the need for it. “This year we hit, we hit another low,” Taylor said. “They need our help. All pollinators need our help.”

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“There are two different populations of monarch butterflies,” Butterfly Biosphere (at Thanksgiving Point) Chief Entomologist Marissa Harrison explained. “There is an eastern population and a western population. Here in Utah, we see that western population. They move from southern California and move northwest of the Rocky Mountains.”

The Center for Biological Diversity reports that since the late 1980s, the western monarch population has declined by upwards of 99 percent. The eastern monarch population (which is known for overwintering in Mexico in extreme numbers) was doing a little better. However, this winter came with a surprise.

“It was an unprecedented drop,” Harrison stated. “Almost a 60 percent decline since last year, which they’ve never seen before in the 30 years of measuring that population.”

Harrison explained that a decline in the monarchs can be a signal of other declining species. They act like a symbol of how well the environment is doing, much like a canary in a coalmine. 

Harrison said that monarchs are unique in the butterfly world because they migrate each year. “In the spring, the butterflies leave Mexico or southern California, and they find milkweed and they lay eggs on the milkweed,” she stated. “That generation will die, and their offspring will make the next leg of the journey.” She said that each summer, the butterflies will go through a few generations as they make their way up north taking advantage of the flowering plants. The last generation, will makes its way back down to California or Mexico, having never been there before, and survive off its body fats until it’s time to start the journey again.

The butterflies, like all pollinators, need flowers to feed on, but even if they have enough food for the adults, the caterpillars will not survive without milkweed. The plant contains some poisons. The caterpillars can tolerate it, but it makes them unsavory to many predators. It is the only plant on which the butterflies will lay their eggs.

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“We can make a difference,” Rachel Taylor said. Making a difference, even in a small way, is why Taylor began planting milkweed years ago and why she now runs Friends of Monarchs to get milkweed out to as many people as possible. Creating a small safe haven in one’s backyard is a simple way to make a difference and a great way to invite some extra beauty to one’s home. “It just took off because we really could get them to come to our yards and it was pretty amazing,” Taylor said.

For more information on Friends of Monarchs Utah or how you can get involved and help, click here.

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