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The Plight of the Monarch

I started talking about the Monarch Butterfly in my last column and how it had recently been added to the list of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Monarch is one of the few insects which everyone recognizes immediately, and is a good symbol for action, as it stirs emotions in all of us. This can only lead to good things, but only if we truly believe we will make concerted efforts as individuals, businesses, organizations, and governments. To pay lip service is a non-helpful response. So let’s hope ‘they’ do something to help these and all other imperilled insects. In 2019 I wrote, the Monarch was making a strong comeback, yet here we are three years later, and they are in jeopardy again, showing how fragile nature is. The western US population is reportedly down by 99 percent and the eastern population by 84 percent!

Monarchs are not big creatures, weighing only half a gram and sporting a wingspan of 7-10 cms, yet they travel about 5000 kilometres to their wintering grounds in Mexico each autumn. Arriving there around the beginning of November each year, the locals both celebrate and fear their arrival. The celebration known as El dia de los muertos coincides roughly with their arrival, and many believe they symbolize the return of ancestral dead souls. Despite this, for the most part, the Mexicans allow them to share the land, and it is only when greed intervenes (e.g. logging) that they are further threatened beyond the other pressures of pesticides and climate.

The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, sparked by accelerating rapid climate change, is likely contributing to reduced numbers. Severe storms can blow insects off course or into the paths of buildings and cars or outright kill them as their bodies are soft, and impacts will be fatal.

Our roadside mowing practices continue to be problematic, as we cut down the very plants these insects need to survive. As the Canadian government pushes for reductions in fertilizer use, the farming industry will have to clear more land and again, the pollinators will suffer so crops and livelihoods can be maintained.

The insects which winter in Mexico start their northbound journey in the early spring, and will, through three or four generations, finally reach Ontario to breed one more time before that single generation migrates all the way back to Mexico to start the cycle over, the following year. All along the route, suitable plants are needed.

So is there anything we can do to truly help? Let’s look at what others are proposing. The Canadian Wildlife Fund (CWF) has a project designed to create and restore breeding and feeding habitats along public roadsides, rights-of-way (e.g. hydro-lines, pipelines, solar farms, etc.), and on marginal farmland. They are working with partners in Conservation Authorities, Municipalities and Corporations. But this only works if we all cooperate. The monarch, regarded as an ‘umbrella species,’ a poster child, so to speak, provides benefits to many species which rely on the same preserved habitats. So when we help Monarchs, we help many species of insects and other animals as well.

Through other projects such as iNaturalist, citizens not only become interested in these species and their status but actively participate in their recovery. So, for example, the CWF project aims to identify and model the major roosting sites and migratory routes, and help scientists and governments save the right land. Too often, we save a land parcel because it has no value to us, but it may also have little value to the wildlife we are trying to preserve.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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