Four women walk through a meadow of green, knee-high grass with white gauze nets in their hands. Three are interns, one is an expert, but all of them are looking for butterflies. Not the orange painted lady variety that fools wing watchers often, but monarchs. Monarchs are larger, more vibrant and less abundant.
The crew is working within Idaho’s Curlew National Grassland, barely a handful of miles north of the Utah border. It’s the biggest monarch butterfly breeding site the U.S. Forest Service manages in the Intermountain West. While eastern monarch butterflies fly south to Mexico for the winter, most western monarchs migrate to the California coast. The netters at Curlew try to tag them en route.
“It’s amazing really,” says Rose Lehman, Caribou-Targhee National Forest botanist. “Butterflies are only the weight of a paperclip and yet you can put this little sticker on them and hope that someone sees it and reports it.”
Lehman estimates she needs to tag at least 200 sunset colored wings for the slim chance of having at least one seen and reported. The netters don’t have 200. They’re empty-handed in the state with monarchs as its official state insect.
Monarchs coming from Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington are missing. The void is alarming. Migrating western monarch butterflies declined 85 percent from 2017 to 2018. The current count is 28,429 monarchs collecting on the Pacific coast this winter. That’s down from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s.
“There’s funding for emergency research and we’re using it now,” says Emma Pelton, Xerces Society conservation biologist. “Our worst fear is monarchs totally disappear before we figure out why they’re disappearing.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a monarch conservation database last summer. It’s considering the addition of monarchs to the Endangered Species List this year. A decision is expected in June.
Researchers predict population collapse at 30,000 butterflies. Monarchs are below that now, but don’t throw your hands in the air of despair yet. Natural Resources Conservation Service, within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers more than three dozen ways large-scale growers can help monarchs. Individuals on a small scale have a hand in recovery too. What you plant in your garden and flowerbeds this growing season will help or hinder pollinators, including monarchs.
As caterpillars, monarchs display sharp stripes of yellow, black and white while creeping along the leaves of milkweed, feasting as they go. As adults, they’re delicate triangles of orange-veined with black, floating on the breeze in search of nectar. They’ll search your yard for it.
“So much of our food and human condition is dependent on pollinators,” Lehman says. “Certainly everybody can be more aware of what they plant in their garden and make sure it’s pollinator friendly. There are a lot of things individuals, and natural resource managers alike, can do.”
What you do is not as simple as planting any and every bloom. Choose specific blooms for butterflies. Tulips, for example, are bred for beauty rather than food for insects. They won’t help the butterfly population, but milkweed will. So will pollen producing plants like aster and goldenrod.
That’s what you want, but before you buy, ask the nursery if the plants have been treated with insecticide. There’s often poison applied to protect plants from leaf-eating bugs and it’s expressed in nectar and pollen. It kills insects, including bees and butterflies. Consider how many gardens butterflies fly over when winging it across the West. Reducing insecticides in those gardens could increase the monarch butterfly population.
“Monarchs are conservation ambassadors because they migrate over huge areas,” Pelton says. “You have to conserve habitat among a lot of different people over a lot of different landscapes.”
They are drawn to the Curlew National Grassland, ironically enough, for invasive Russian olive. Some of the silver-leafed, fragrant trees are falling on the ax as part of a multi-year, major, landscape restoration project, but not all of them. Monarchs seek the shade of Russian olives along riparian areas, the wet zones, when crossing the desert on hot, summer days.
“Russian olive is a weed,” Lehman says. “But removing that structure is a challenge in the management of monarchs.”
The other challenge is time. Time is running out on resolving the butterfly’s rapid decline. On the upside, bugs breed a lot faster than big game.
“This is not the story of slow, reproducing megafauna,” Pelton says. “We’re not talking about one egg here. We’re talking about hundreds of eggs and that can yield fast results. And these are not animals in remote places. Any person, even if they rent an apartment, can set out a pot on their stoop with a plant in it that attracts pollinators. Everyone can help.”
If you want to give monarchs a hand in your own yard, here’s what to plant.
- For spring nectar: Native milkweed, Culver’s root, beach blanket flower and native thistle. Planting native milkweed (not tropical milkweed) is encouraged unless you live along the California coast. Do not plant milkweed within five miles of the coast. It disrupts overwintering monarchs during their rest cycle.
- For summer nectar: Sunflowers, bee balm, blazing star.
- For fall nectar: Aster, goldenrod, rabbitbrush, coyote bush.