Monarchs’ habitat, migration worth preserving

Imagine yourself on a cross-country trip and you had very strict dietary requirements.  Maybe gluten-free, organic, vegan, low sodium. From the standard fare offered on freeway exits, you would have a tough time feeding yourself.

As a vegetarian, the closest experience I can offer was taking a three-day coast-to-coast voyage on a Greyhound bus that seemed to prefer stopping at Burger Kings for the limited meal breaks.

In the bleak towns in the Southwest, there were no other options, so I ended up eating a lot of fries and having a milkshake. At least I could adapt somewhat and survive. Many of our insect friends aren’t so lucky.  

On one of my trips into our village here, my wife called out a request to add some new reading material to the shopping list. While browsing to fulfill her desire I stumbled upon Robert Michael Pyle’s “Chasing Monarchs” book.

Thumbing through the pages, it seemed to fit the bill. So I brought it home and she started right in. Turns out it was a good fit. She likes nature, science and the Pacific Northwest and this work touches on all three.

Pyle is a prolific writer and has been instrumental with numerous butterfly field guides, including the Audubon, Peterson, and several regional guidebooks. Other works include a look into Bigfoot/Sasquatch, forest practices, novels, and several more butterfly-inspired works. All told, he has 24 books to his credit and hundreds of papers, articles, poems, stories, and essays.

In “Chasing Monarchs” he hits the road in his beloved 1982 Honda Civic, “Powdermilk,” which at the start of the trip had already racked up over 240,000 miles in their time together. At the beginning of his trip he was accompanied by his wife, Thea. They left their home in Southwest Washington, along the Columbia and headed for Canada looking for the northernmost point of the Monarch’s migration route.  

Pyle’s goal was to follow the southern migration one Monarch at a time. After spotting one, he would follow it as far as he could and determine the travel direction. Then he would hunt around until he found another and set off again. When possible, he would capture a Monarch and attach a tag to aid in understanding its travel patterns.

Many butterflies live and die where they are born, if they live in a temperate zone, or else have developed the ability to go dormant over the winter entering a state called diapause. This could be as an egg, larval, or pupal stage depending on the species, with some adults hibernating in hollow trees or other nooks. All others must migrate.

The Monarch, Danaus plexippus, is the only North American species to migrate en masse north in the spring and south in the fall, similar to birds.

You may have seen images of monarchs congregating by the hundreds of thousands in trees at gathering spots in Mexico and California. Or if very lucky have witnessed this phenomenon in person. While the Monarch butterfly is found throughout the United States, and is genetically identical, there is a western and eastern population. It was thought that never the twain should meet but Pyle has found there is some crossover. So it seems more complicated, as nature usually is, than was previously thought.

Cottage Grove gets a mention in the book when his Honda’s water pump gives out: “Detouring on old U.S. 99 took me through Cottage Grove, a town whose pretty name actually matches its appearance. It was all white porches full of jack-o’-lanterns and, in the historic district, covered-bridge banners in bright pink, green, and blue.” He goes on to describe the pleasure he had walking through town while the car was being repaired, enjoying the sights, fall colors, people, and the W. A. Woodward Library, which held a copy of his favorite Monarch book, “Wings in the Meadow.”

The western population of the Monarch butterfly has been in steep decline, losing close to 90% of its population numbers from the 1980s. Pyle has been deeply involved in both understanding the decline and in conservation efforts. One of the main reasons behind the drop in population is related to the opening theme of this piece, a specialized diet. 

For the Monarch, that means milkweed.

The plants and butterflies have co-evolved with one another and the Monarch can’t survive without its host plant. While adults can feed on most any nectar plant, the caterpillar must have milkweed to grow and thrive. The bitter latex that the milkweed hopes to discourage insects from eating its foliage passes on that protection to the larval and adult Monarchs. The bitterness absorbed from the milkweed teaches predators that a Monarch meal is not one to repeat. The bright colors of both larvae and adults advertise that fact, for what good is a defense if your enemies don’t realize you are packing?

Unfortunately for the Monarch, milkweed has been eliminated from much of its range. Before the advent of herbicides and large-scale industrial farming, it was fairly common for milkweed, which likes disturbed ground, to grow along with the crops. Also, mowing and spraying of roadsides and ditches have practically eliminated the large stands of milkweed that Monarchs require for their lifecycle.

Locally there have been efforts to reverse this trend and to try and give the Monarchs a hand. I spoke with Allison Center, who is president of the Oregon chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. This is the largest organization of many working for the welfare of butterflies in our country. It is involved in research, conservation, monitoring, and education concerning butterflies. It also serves on the steering committee of the Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership dedicated in helping to protect the Monarch’s migration routes and resting areas.

“There has been a lot of activity in the Medford and Ashland areas for years in establishing Monarch waystations. These are patches of milkweed and nectar plants that are planted and maintained on public and private land. They provide a patchwork of habitat where eggs can be laid and young develop into adults. Other pollinators benefit too from the food plants. Locally working with BLM, the Forest Service and Army Corps botanists there have been Monarch waystations set up at Mosby Creek Trailhead, Row Point, and Bake Stewart Park.

In fact I saw a Monarch at Bake Stewart this season. There are also waystations at most Cottage Grove schools and one at Bohemia Park and the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council’s Office,” Center said.

“You can make your own butterfly garden and help not just Monarchs but all butterflies who are having a hard time in general. Even an area as small as 3-by-12 feet would make a huge difference. Besides milkweed some plants which are great for butterflies are good for people too. Lavender, oregano, basil, mint, rosemary, thyme, echinacea for example. There are many natives that are great for butterflies, too. They have a native-plant nursery at the Elkton Community Education Center and Butterfly Pavilion, which is a wonderful place to learn about and see butterflies if you have never visited. They are making a real effort to raise Monarchs and other species. Mt. Pisgah-Buford Park also has a plant nursery raising natives, but its season has passed for this year. Check in the springtime. Not using pesticides and herbicides is a huge way to keep things safe for butterflies. Even the bacterial biopesticides will kill most any caterpillar so use them very sparingly, if at all. It is best to pick off the worms by hand if they are causing too much damage. A few holes in leaves isn’t too bad for the plant,” according to Center.

The Xerces Society is named for the first butterfly to become extinct in North America, the Xerces blue in 1949. Pyle was its founder and now the organization works on many levels trying to ensure that no other members of the butterfly clan join the Xerces. One aspect they have been trying to do is coordinate with ODOT and power companies on use of the right-of-ways as pollinator areas. By not spraying and altering the mowing schedules, these large swaths of public land could potentially become huge habitats for Monarchs and other important pollinators .

One success story has been Fender’s blue butterfly. It is found only in the Willamette Valley and was feared extinct since 1937 but was rediscovered in ’89 and has been helped along by careful habitat management by the Army Corps biologists at the Fern Ridge Reservoir. By planting its larval host plant – the endangered Kincaid’s lupine, controlling invasive species, and restoring the prairie, things are slowly improving for this little gem of a butterfly. It is not out of the woods yet but serves as an example of what can happen if you provide food and habitat, and don’t poison them.

If your place can be set up for butterflies please do so. Not only will they provide joy but they will be around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy as well.  

Reach Dana at [email protected].



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