by Connie Oswald Stofko
Monarchs should be on the endangered species list, said Jay Burney, executive director of the Pollinator Conservation Association (PCA), based in Western New York.
For years there has been a massive decline in monarch butterflies, but last year the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declined to add the monarch to the endangered species list, Burney said.
The FWS said there will be a yearly review and the monarch will stay in the running for protection. However, the monarch may not get serious consideration until 2024, he said, and monarchs can’t wait until then.
Overall, populations are declining, but there is hope.
On the West Coast, there are some overwintering areas that had not seen any monarchs at all in recent years, Burney said. In 2021, the population numbers have improved. However, the numbers are still only 20 percent of what they had been in previous years.
In Western New York, we don’t have statistics for 2021 yet. The monarch populations are cyclical, he said. Some years there are big counts, some years there are not-so-big counts, and some years there are very low counts.
From anectdotal evidence, it looks like there was a big population of monarchs this year.
“That doesn’t mean the population can’t collapse,” Burney warned. “It’s up from where it was in the past five or six years, but it’s still down significantly from where it was 20 to 30 years ago.”
Factors that play a role in the decrease of the numbers of monarch butterflies include bad weather and climate change. A major factor is habitat: the spread of urbanization as well as agricultural policies such as the use of pesticides.
What you can do at home
Use native plants instead of cultivars, Burney said. (In this context, a cultivar or “nativar” is a hybrid of a true native plant and another plant.)
“Cultivars don’t contain the same things as a native plant,” he said. “Cultivars aren’t as nutritious. They don’t fit into the ecosystem the way a native plant does. They don’t use the air and water in the same way. They don’t interact with other plants and animals the same way; the relationships are different. These subltle differences create a weaker ecosystem.”
You can use native milkweed in your garden to provide food and shelter for monarch caterpillars as well as adult butterflies. Native asters feed monarchs that develop here later in the season or who pass through from Canada on their long journey to Mexico. There are native plants for other butterflies, too.
When it comes to native milkweeds and other native plants, “every square inch counts,” he said.
But you could go a step further.
“Habitat isn’t just plants,” Burney said. “If you don’t pay attention to the ecosystem, you’re not helping monarchs as much as you could.”
Aim to set aside one area for a regenerative garden, he suggested. You want a consistent, year-round habitat.
This isn’t just for monarchs, but for birds and organisms in the soil and other creatures.
“They all feed off each other and make each other healthy,” he said.
A regenerative garden is easy and is less time consuming than a garden you have to fuss with.
Choose some native plants that flower. Allow them to grow and die. Don’t use pesticides or herbicides. Don’t use decorative mulch. When leaves fall on the garden, just leave them in place and allow them to recycle themselves. Add some sand, gravel, driftwood and a couple of rocks for insects.
“Bare-looking spots harbor insects,” he said. “A garden doesn’t have to be lush and green to be good.”
How you can help with bigger projects
“Monarch butterflies are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a decline in biodiversity,” Burney said. “Monarchs are obvious and visible, but they are just one part of the whole ecosystem.”
Western New York has 15 species of bumble bees, and their populations are all in decline, he said. Many flies and wasps are declining. Many native species have disappeared from Western New York.
One example is the once-common Karner blue butterfly, which is now gone from our area.
The Karner blue butterfly depends on the wild blue lupine, but it needs lots of it– acres of lupine. That’s not a project a home gardener can tackle themselves.
Find out more about the work the PCA does in this video about the Times Beach Nature Preserve in downtown Buffalo, created out of an area filled with toxic sediment.
The group’s flagship project is at Buffalo Harbor State Park, across from Tifft Nature Preserve. The four-year-old planting includes milkweed to support monarch eggs and caterpillars as well as autumn flowers to feed adults as they fly along the shorelines on their way to Mexico. Monarchs were still passing through from the north in late November, he said.
The PCA’s newest project is building a new habitat for pollinators in Aqua Lane Park, right on the shoreline of the Niagara River in Tonawanda. An archipelago of islands is located right off the park and provides habitat for fish and birds, including tundra swans, which stay all winter.