Urgent Alert! Western Monarch Butterflies Desperately Need Our Help

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Western monarch above showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Photo courtesy Xerces Society/Stephanie McKnight.


The final results are in from last November’s Western Monarch Count and they are alarming. Although there were millions of western monarch butterflies overwintering in California in the 1980s, the 2018 count reveals just 28,429—the lowest number ever recorded and an 85.2 percent decline from 2017 and a 99.4 percent decline from the ’80s, according to the Xerces Society. One research study estimated that 30,000 could lead to western monarch migration collapse. [Update, January 2020: the 2019 count is similarly shocking.]

Nineteen ninety-seven was the last year that monarchs numbered above one million; there has been significant decline in both the total number of butterflies reported per year and the average number of monarchs per overwintering site. Western monarchs overwinter mainly in California (with some in northern Baja and Arizona). They are a separate population from those in the eastern US, which overwinter in Mexico. The decline in western monarchs is much more severe than those in the East.

The Xerces Society has developed a Western Monarch Call to Action that includes conservation measures must be taken immediately if we are to save this beautiful species from extinction. If you live in the western states, please have a look; if you know people who live in the area (particularly the California Coast Range, Sacramento Valley, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada), please share this with them.

We cannot sit by and wait for state agencies and non-profits to try to bring them back to safe levels. It’s going to take massive, multifaceted actions to bring back these wonders—actions that come from empathy and ecological enlightenment, not technology. 

For those of us who garden in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, here’s how we can help grow habitat. Monarch habitat must contain both milkweed host plants and a diversity of other plants. Devote as much of your yard as possible to habitat; consider converting an open expanse of lawn you don’t use, since you will need a mostly sunny spot. That said, you don’t need a huge space and even if monarchs never visit your patch, other pollinators will be supported.

Asclepias fascicularis sRGB

Narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) along a Wasco County, Ore. road.

♦ Plant native milkweed—monarch’s only host plant—especially if milkweed historically occurred in your area. Learn which one(s) might naturally occur and be most suitable for the pollinators in your area of OregonWashington, Nevada or California. For other states, contact your state department of fish and wildlife or native plant society. To find where you can buy locally native milkweed seed in the US, click here.  

♦ Grow a variety of native nectar plants so you have flowers from spring until fall. Be sure they are native to your area and were propagated from material in your area for best results. If you have the space, plant at least three different species during spring, summer and fall. Arrange at least 3 or 4 plants in groups or swaths, fairly close together, so that pollinators can find them easily and nectar is plentiful. For gardens west of the Cascades, consider these spring flowering shrubs, and some summer and fall pollinator plants. Monarchs need nectar in both spring and fall for migration, and for breeding during summer.

♦ Never buy pollinator plants treated with insecticides. Systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids will harm monarchs and other beneficial pollinators long after they’ve been treated. If you’re unsure, ask the grower (or shop elsewhere).

♦ Avoid all pesticides in and around your yard to avoid harming beneficial insects, as well as plants and soil.

♦ Encourage the growth of native pollinator-friendly plants in your neighborhood and any community gardens nearby, or start your own pollinator plot in the garden if you are a member. Or, turn a vacant lot or part of a park into a large pollinator bed.

No patch of earth to garden in? There are many ways to volunteer to help monarchs, such as becoming a citizen scientist or public advocate. Much of what we know comes from volunteers contributing observations.

It’s also imperative that we support organic agriculture by purchasing organically grown foods, since one of the reasons for the dangerous loss of insects, birds, and aquatic wildlife is the application of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in conventional agriculture.

Finally, please do not buy mass-produced or captive-reared butterflies. It may do more harm than good.

© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

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4 thoughts on Urgent Alert! Western Monarch Butterflies Desperately Need Our Help

  1. I have a cocoon now, the caterpilar ate most of a ruda plant and I am freaking out because is too late to find milkweed in a nursery and the wild one is almost finish at this time. One of my friends suggests dogweed that she is willing to let me have. would that work? how can I save the monarch?

    1. I doubt very much that you have a monarch caterpillar since they only lay their eggs on and eat milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). If you mean Ruta (not Ruda), then it could be a swallowtail caterpillar.

  2. I know someone in Central Washington who had to chase someone from the weed board off her property who thought Milkweed “looked to him like a noxious weed”. The truth is, he didn’t really know what it was, and decided to spray it just in case. Heart breaking.


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