The Monarch Butterfly Decline, and What You Can Do About It

A recent report shows monarch butterflies have declined 59 percent in the past year. The reasons may surprise you. And you can help.

For the past month, monarch butterflies have caused a lot of buzz in both the news and in conservation circles. The reason: a report published by the World Wildlife Fund and others that documented a 59 percent decline in monarch populations this year.

This week, Yale Environment 360 published perhaps the best piece yet on this alarming decline, Richard Conniff’s interview with Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. It presents a number of interesting issues that conservationists should notice.

It’s well known that almost the entire eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinters in a few clustered forests in Mexico. These tiny islands of habitat make the butterflies vulnerable. Many U.S. residents believe that the population decline is, in fact, due to logging in Mexican forests. But as Taylor points out, the Mexican government has done an excellent job stopping illegal logging.

So why the decline?

The study’s authors point to agricultural fields. Taylor suggests that the monarch butterfly is likely “collateral damage” from the use of genetically engineered crops, namely Roundup-ready corn and soybeans. These crops have resulted in significantly higher pesticide use, wiping out the milkweeds that monarchs need to survive.

As Taylor says in the interview:

Now you are really hard pressed to find any corn or soybeans that have milkweed in the fields. I haven’t seen any for years now because of the use of Roundup after they planted these crops. They have effectively eliminated milkweed from almost all of the habitat that monarchs used to use.

Additionally, due to biofuel and high crop prices, there are more acres in corn and soybean production than any year since just after World War II.  This has meant that a lot of land has been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and a lot of marginal land–where milkweeds once grew– has been tilled.

That’s a lot of lost habitat for wildlife, including monarch butterflies.

And here’s where you come in.

Taylor’s Monarch Watch is urging people to plant milkweeds as part of their backyard gardens this spring.

Milkweed isn’t going to grow back on agricultural monocultures. Conniff questions whether backyard gardening can really help, but there are a lot of backyards and vacant lots that could hold milkweeds.

As Taylor says: “To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds has to become a national priority.”

And it would appear that similar citizen-led restoration efforts have helped other species: Consider the nesting boxes that have dramatically helped eastern bluebirds and wood ducks, conservation efforts led by birding clubs, youth groups and backyard enthusiasts. A similar effort in planting milkweed could create a lot of butterfly habitat.

Monarch Watch offers milkweed growing tips to get you started, and has information on other citizen-science projects that can help butterflies.

And, please: lay off those those pesticides. Using alternatives for your weed and pest issues not only helps butterflies, it’s better for kids and pets, too.

Monarch butterflies are one of the most charismatic and beloved species in the country. It’s time for all of us to do our part to make sure they remain a common sight in our yards, gardens and parks.

Photo credit: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson under the the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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  1. Susan G Brown says:

    I will happily plant some seeds! please send me some — 1815 Laurel Ridge Dr., Nashville, TN 37215

  2. Rebecca Blackard says:

    Please send me a package of milkweed seeds so I can do my part.

  3. DebbieHeavener says:

    I want to help keep the monarch butterflies alive, please send me the free seeds so I can plant them in my garden, and thanks for helping save these beautiful butterflies.

  4. Betty says:

    How do I get milkwed seed packet?

  5. michele prokop says:

    How about a PICTURE of milkweed so we can know what NOT to pull out or spray?

    1. Lisa Feldkamp says:

      Hi Michele, Thank you for the suggestion. There are many varieties of milkweed in North America. You can learn more about them from the Xerces Society at:

  6. Linda Waycie says:

    The Garden Club of Mt. Prospect has formed a Monarch Outreach Project. Many members have been raising milkweed for years and some are harvesting the eggs and caring for the caterpillars through the butterfly stage. Now we are ready to reach out to our community. We are in the infancy stages of asking our conservatory to raise seedlings for us, contacting the local schools, churches, Brownie, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, library and taking part in community events such as plants sales. We are locating resources and people to help us with curriculum following Common Core Standards and National Science Standards. It is an exciting time!

  7. Judith LaGalante says:

    I would love to plant milkweed but do not know of a source or what the plants water requirements are.

    Please help me help them.

  8. Kelly Robinson says:

    I’d also like to add a theory which is along similar lines as the above. In addition to the impact from pesticides used on crops I guarantee another major reason we are losing the Monarch’s is the fact that people are using pesticides that are not only used on the interior of the home but has become popular to spray the outside of your home in most suburbs. Monarchs like to hang out on homes and siding along their route, if it’s sprayed they are tainted. I’d like to ask for regulations to be in place on the use of these chemicals.

  9. Pam Agujar says:

    My gomphophsyocarpa is bearing several thousands seeds. I’m ore than happy to give them to other monarch enthusiasts. All I’m asking is for a self-addressed stamped envelope and I’ll send them right away.

  10. Helen says:

    It’s great to feel like we’re empowered to do something for the monarchs, and we should do everything we can.

    But are we all too polite to call “no fair” on the farming practices that are the big driver of the problem? When did we learn collectively to roll over like this? By taking on the problem in our backyards and stopping there, we’re letting the real culprits off the hook.

    So plant milkweed, for sure, but also:

    – Buy organic food, including grass-fed meat. Reward farmers who don’t damage the ecosystems they operate in.

    – Shun biofuels if at all possible. When you ride your bike to work, think of butterflies :-).

    – Write your representatives and express your concern. Ask that future consideration of GM crop regulation factor in collateral damage like this. You could even ask that farmers using roundup-ready crops be required to allocate space to milkweed and other insect-friendly plants.

    I love the idea of roundup resistant milkweed, but then…. arms race?