By Sara Ruberg
Dan Jenkins resides in a monarch butterfly oasis.
He is doing everything he can to keep it that way, despite increasing challenges for the species.
When his family moved decades ago to property on the southern tip of Upper Saranac Lake, they didn’t realize they were inheriting a monarch landing strip along with the house. When Jenkins first started seeing the floods of monarchs around his house in the early 1990s, he had to learn more. Now, his garden thrives with milkweed and flowers beside his overgrown yard, encompassed by trees on one side and the lake on the other—a monarch’s paradise.
“It was a phenomenon to see them streaming by this place,” Jenkins said. “It was just stunning … that migration, it’s just magical or something.”
Then, in 1997, he stumbled upon a monarch tagging program through an organization called Monarch Watch. The tags are small stickers used to help Monarch Watch track the monarchs’ migration to overwintering sites in Mexico. When someone finds a monarch with a tag, either in Mexico or in migration, they can report the sighting online to Monarch Watch.
He began tagging monarchs that summer in his backyard and prompted other local schools and organizations to join him. He has been tagging them every year since, and some years they’re recovered in Mexico. In 2001, seven that he and other locals tagged were recovered 3,000 miles away in Mexico—the most he has ever had found.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Jenkins said, he would tag hundreds of monarchs in a week. Now, like many others across the continent, he sees fewer monarchs each year, though there are occasional influxes. Some years, the number he tags drops to single digits.
Jenkins is witnessing the North American monarchs’ rapid decline firsthand. Eastern monarch populations have decreased by at least 80 percent in the past two decades, according to Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The Western monarch, which migrates only on the coast of California, has declined by 99 percent. The entire North American population is currently under review to be placed under the Endangered Species Act.
That decision has been delayed until December 2020, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says is unusual for a court-ordered deadline. Both the agency and petitioners for the monarch’s protection agreed on the extension to collect and evaluate more data. The review began in 2014.
Eastern monarchs did make a small comeback last winter, growing their population 144 percent. Experts say it still isn’t enough to declare the population stable.
Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, said recovery will require everyone to do their part. Last summer when she came to speak in the Adirondacks, Oberhauser said she noticed residents and organizations were taking action.
“A lot of people there were concerned and that means that we’ll be protecting large tracts,” Oberhauser said. “It was just really impressive to me to see all the people that cared about monarchs and conservation in general.”
The monarch butterfly isn’t at as much risk as other pollinators, but it is the orange symbol in the sky calling people to action. Conservationists often call the monarchs a flagship species, meaning they are a familiar icon that can be used to promote the protection of other pollinators, like bees, moths, birds and other butterflies. Usually, what benefits or harms the monarchs will do the same to other pollinators.
Anurag Agrawal, a Cornell University researcher and author of “Monarchs and Milkweed,” said the monarch decline calls attention not only to other pollinators, which enable production of three-quarters of the world’s crops, but also the well-being of natural areas.
“They are representative of the health of our continent … . If they’re sick, that tells us that we might be sick or we might be getting sick,” Agrawal said.
Even though the role monarchs play as pollinators is minor, they continue to garner attention that has led to grassroots projects working to conserve them.
Brittany Christenson knew the popular appeal of monarchs when she transformed AdkAction’s monarch project to the Pollinator Project three years ago. Christenson, the group’s executive director, wanted to aim people’s love and excitement for monarchs toward helping the entire pollinator community.
“For whatever reason people fall in love with monarchs,” she said. “Maybe it’s because they’re beautiful, (or) maybe it’s because their journey is unbelievable, but whatever the reason, if you get people interested in a species, that species will be protected.”
The Pollinator Project helps create gardens with plants that benefit pollinators, including monarchs, around the Adirondacks. This year the project will install 10 to 15 pollinator gardens at churches, schools, libraries and local businesses while also distributing 20,000 seed packets. AdkAction also continues to hand out milkweed seed packets.
The project travels around the park, including Westport Central School, where it helped students plant a pollinator garden for their summer program in mid-July. Elementary students raced each other to see who could put the most plants in the ground. In the end, they installed about 40 plants scattered around tree stumps, including trumpet honeysuckles, New York asters, butterfly weed and cardinal flowers, all native to the area.
The Northwood School in Lake Placid also invited the Pollinator Project to help students plant a pollinator garden as part of an end-of-year educational program. Lisa Wint, an academic coach at the school, led the program to teach the students about organic and sustainable farming, including the importance of pollinators in sustainable farming.
“It was kind of the culmination of all the things that we had learned,” Wint said. “It was putting it all into practice, and getting kids’ hands dirty and leaving something on campus was sort of the lasting part of what we did.”
The garden, located next to the school’s vegetable garden, is all small sprouts and soil with a staked sign in the back to let visitors know it’s a pollinator garden. By next summer, the plants are expected to fully blossom and the bushy plants will cover more soil.
AdkAction piloted a program this summer to place pollinator habitat throughout crop fields at different Adirondack farms. Christenson said the plants should increase crop yields while also creating pollinator habitat, according to a study by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas.
Initiatives to protect monarchs specifically are still building. The organization continues a letter-writing campaign to New York’s Department of Transportation and local road officials to change mowing behaviors on the sides of highways and roads to protect the milkweed and wildflowers that grow there.
The Pollinator Project is doing the kind of local work that national organizations advocate. Xerces Society, Monarch Joint Venture, the Fish and Wildlife Service and many others are backing up a study, coauthored by Oberhauser, that says any available land for monarch habitat needs to be converted. This means all sectors—rural, urban and suburban—need to conserve monarch habitat in their backyards, along sidewalks and in agricultural fields.
Sarah Foltz Jordan, a senior pollinator conservationist specialist at Xerces Society, expressed this message to an audience of Adirondackers at AdkAction’s Pollinator Symposium in June. The gathering helped local farmers and landowners learn how to use their property for the benefit of pollinators.
“All the modeling that has looked at population recovery suggests that we need an-all-hands-on-deck approach where we’re getting more habitat everywhere we can, like railroads, roadsides, farmlands,” Foltz Jordan said.
Some experts are skeptical small-scale efforts around the country will be enough, although many remain hopeful. It’s expected that stabilizing monarch populations will require planting 1.4 billion stems of milkweed, along with nectar-rich habitat. Additionally, 2 million acres must be planted each year just to make up for the annual destruction of habitat.
Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and another coauthor of the study promoting widespread action, said there isn’t enough large-scale effort to achieve these goals. The habitat being created isn’t keeping up with the habitat lost every year in the Midwest, where stems are being lost due to corn and soybean fields leaving less room for habitat and widespread herbicide use.
“If you reduce the habitat, you reduce the population,” Taylor said. “We’re very good at destroying things, but we’re not very good at putting them back together.”
Scientists are pointing to habitat loss as the primary reason for the butterfly’s waning populations. But what is mainly driving the habitat loss is still complicated. Monarchs’ long and expansive migration makes it difficult to pin down the problem. Also, monarchs need a range of natural areas to survive their migrations, such as milkweed to lay eggs on, nectar-rich plants for food, and chemical-free trees and plants to rest on.
Kelly Gill, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic pollinator conservation specialist for Xerces Society, said people are becoming more informed and are engaging in monarch conservation. Gill finds local and citizen-science projects, such as monarch counts and tagging programs, important for widespread research. The numbers collected are important in documenting insect declines.
Local projects are sprouting all over the Adirondack Park. There’s an annual monarch count at Lake Placid each summer. (This year participants counted around three dozen monarchs.) Other residents are planting pollinator-friendly flowers and plants, and also reporting monarch sightings online at Journey North, a website used to help track the migration.
There are bigger projects at the Wild Center and the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Information Center butterfly house. Both engage in tagging from the end of August through October. They also raise monarch caterpillars in large, netted nurseries under natural conditions, and provide educational tools about them for the public.
Cindy Watson, the newest butterfly house coordinator at Paul Smith’s College VIC, talks to visitors about the monarchs and their migration as they walk through. The butterfly house is right next to a “Monarch Waystation,” which is a garden registered with Monarch Watch.
“Part of our job is to inform our local citizens and to make them aware so they can take a little piece of their yard and make it a garden,” Watson said.
The public is welcome to walk through the butterfly house. In the fall, there are programs there and at the Wild Center where the public can have a hand in tagging monarchs with the staff. Both centers are part of a small network of people who participate every year in the Monarch Watch tagging program around the Adirondacks, including local schools and residents. Jenkins, the Upper Saranac Lake resident, helps connect the network.
What started for him as curiosity has blossomed into a passion.
“They’re the ambassadors for the insect world,” Jenkins said of monarchs. “They’re our wake-up call.”