As political concerns make environmental policy changes hard to foresee, the role of citizen scientists in tracking the Monarch butterfly’s population fluctuations and migration patterns is even more important, said a panel of experts from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
“What changes things are people working, understanding, and learning,” said Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, the director of scientific communication at the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico (CONABIO). “Over 50% of observations of plants and animals globally come from citizen scientists.”
The panel Friday night at the Pearl Stable kicked off the second annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival and featured scientists and others experts from each of the countries on the Monarch’s migration route. Galindo was joined by Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, an organization that tracks and advocates for wildlife migrations; Louise Hénault-Ethier, director of science at the David Suzuki Foundation; and Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor.
“Tangled politics” in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico have not helped the Monarch’s situation, the experts said. Hénault-Ethier said that environmental advocates are still waiting for the approval of a petition asking to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Environmental concerns are the principal threat to the Monarch’s ability to thrive. As governments “come and go” in the three countries where the migration occurs and policies change depending on political leaders, the true drivers of change are those citizens committed to environmental advocacy and helping scientists track migration patterns, Galindo said.
“The main issues across the board are the reproduction of plants that are full of herbicides or insecticides,” Galindo told the audience. “In addition, our main concern is also the migration pathway. For many years we were concerned about the hibernation sites, but this is not a Mexican issue only. … The migration has to be looked at from the breeding sites to the winter sites and back.”
Right now, the fall Monarch migration is in full swing in South Texas, and citizen scientists are helping professional scientists to track the migration, Howard said.
“The importance of Texas is so great,” she said, “because the migration passes through here in both directions.”
“Today, Monarchs are still coming out of Ontario when they should have been out of there three weeks ago,” Taylor said.
The delayed migration patterns have him “very concerned” because the delay could affect how many Monarchs will make it to the roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico. “Monarchs can travel up to 300 miles in three days, and I predicted high populations from the Northeast … but what I couldn’t predict were the fall winds and temperatures.”
The rise in temperatures during the fall, Taylor said, has caused delayed migration patterns because Monarchs don’t like to fly when it’s 80 or 90 degrees. In addition, strong headwinds are a factor. There are reports of downward trends in Monarch populations across the board, Hénault-Ethier said, citing a recent study that shows a 90% decline in Mexico.
“I don’t know how this will pan out, but I’m concerned,” Taylor said. “We’ll have to wait and see. It’s a year of surprises.”
While the scientists and citizen scientists cited climate change as an overarching problem that may hinder the butterflies’ future population numbers, they emphasized that other issues negatively affecting Monarchs are easier to address. Those issues include the lack of plants such as milkweed that are vital to the Monarch’s life cycle and the proliferation of herbicides and insecticides. As herbicide and insecticide use has increased, Hénault-Ethier said, studies are showing a sharp decline in insect populations.
“There are several issues we don’t have a handle on like climate change, which is hard to get a grip on on a short-term basis,” Hénault-Ethier said. “Let’s educate people. If there is less milkweed there is less likelihood for Monarchs to reproduce.”
Hénault-Ethier said that she’s working with Canadians to plant more milkweed in urban environments and cities – places where concrete is king. Recently, 5,000 milkweed plants were sold in Canada, she added, and advocates plan to encourage more people to plant them.
Scientists need help – “more eyes and ears,” Howard said, emphasizing the need for more citizen scientists to record observations. Galindo and Taylor said more pollinator gardens and way stations could make a significant difference, as they help the Monarchs renew their energy and continue on their journey.
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Taylor said all citizens must be more proactive in terms of conservation.
“A reporter in Mexico asked me, ‘Why do you conservationists care more about animals than your people?’” Taylor said. “I love that question. The bottom line is, I care about those animals because I really care about people. It’s about us. … It’s about our future and the environment we want to see in the future.”
Monika Maeckle, director of the three-day festival and of the Texas Butterfly Ranch, introduced the panel following a welcome video featuring Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who recently recommitted to the National Wildlife Federation Mayor’s Monarch Butterfly Pledge. The discussion was moderated by Rackspace Vice President Dan Goodgame, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling author.
To learn more about the festival, visit the Texas Butterfly Ranch website.