Lift­ing the fad­ing monarch

Cock­eysville’s Pam Spencer do­ing her part to re­store the threat­ened but­ter­fly

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Pitts

Pam Spencer was about to dig up a fad­ing milk­weed plant in her gar­den when her hus­band, Steve, showed her a blackand-yel­low larva he’d found on one of its leaves.

It was a monarch but­ter­fly in its ear­li­est stages of life.

At her com­puter, she learned it had less than a 3 per­cent chance of sur­viv­ing in the wild. She fos­tered it, re­leased it and did the same with 24 oth­ers. A new pas­sion took flight.

Spencer, a pe­di­atric nurse who lives in Cock­eysville, has reared, tagged and re­leased nearly 2,000 monarch but­ter­flies in the three years since — work that has made her one of the more pro­lific of the grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple in Mary­land join­ing the in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to safe­guard the im­per­iled species.

Like the black-and-or­ange in­sects as she lets them go, she has found it an ex­hil­a­rat­ing jour­ney.

“It’s crazy,” she says. “It has turned into this big, beau­ti­ful thing. It has taken me to won­der­ful, won­der­ful places I’d never have been.”

The monarch but­ter­fly is known for its bold col­ors and its ex­tra­or­di­nary prac­tice of mi­grat­ing from Canada and the north­ern United States to Mex­ico and back every year.

It’s the longest round-trip jour­ney made by any but­ter­fly — 2,000 miles each way for most.

But the pop­u­la­tion is in trou­ble. A va­ri­ety of de­struc­tive fac­tors along its mi­gra­tion path, mostly man-made, have com­bined to shrink its num­bers by a stag­ger­ing 80 per­cent to 90 per­cent over the past two decades.

In the United States, overde­vel­op­ment of land and wide­spread use of agri­cul­tural her­bi­cides have helped dec­i­mate milk­weed and nec­tar-rich flow­ers. Milk­weed is the only plant on which monarch lar­vae will feed, and the flow­ers serve as fuel for the fliers as they travel south.

In Mex­ico, mean­while, il­le­gal log­ging has shrunk the but­ter­flies’ habi­tat.

The monarch but­ter­fly is on the World Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion’s near-threat­ened list, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice has re­port­edly weighed clas­si­fy­ing it as en­dan­gered. The trends have in­spired ac­tion. Or­ley “Chip” Tay­lor, an evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Kansas, leads Monarch Watch, a non­profit con­ser­va­tion group that co­or­di­nates nearly 15,000 reg­is­tered way sta­tions for the but­ter­fly across the United States.

Monarch lovers at these sites, many of them vol­un­teers, track the but­ter­flies dur­ing mi­gra­tion, tag them for mon­i­tor­ing and keep monarch-friendly plants grow­ing in abun­dance.

In the past half-decade, con­ser­va­tion groups such as the Na­tional Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion and the Xerces So­ci­ety for In­ver­te­brate Con­ser­va­tion have stepped up their work with fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments on the monarch’s be­half.

In 2015, the Com­mis­sion for En­vi­ron­men­tal Co­op­er­a­tion, an or­ga­ni­za­tion with mem­ber groups in Canada, the United States and Mex­ico, re­leased a long-term monarch con­ser­va­tion plan. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama later cre­ated a task force on pol­li­na­tors, ask­ing par­tic­i­pat­ing agen­cies to help es­tab­lish a 100-mile-wide “but­ter­fly high­way” be­tween Min­nesota and Texas.

And the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture is spend­ing $4 mil­lion this year to help monarch lovers in 10 heart­land states plant milk­weed and nec­tar-rich plants.

Mary­land isn’t one of those states, but res­i­dents are grow­ing ever more aware of the prob­lem and act­ing on it, says Jes­sica Jean­netta, a nat­u­ral­ist at Ore­gon Ridge Na­ture Cen­ter in Cock­eysville.

Staff at the cen­ter col­lect monarch eggs and cater­pil­lars from farms and other sites nearby — fo­cus­ing par­tic­u­larly on places about to be mowed — take them back and raise them for re­lease.

“We have them in the na­ture cen­ter on dis­plays. We’ll hatch eggs here, and peo­ple can see them as cater­pil­lars and through­out the life cy­cle be­fore we re­lease them,” Jean­netta says.

Each fall, mon­archs that live east of the Rocky Moun­tains jour­ney to a re­gion of the Transvol­canic Moun­tain Range in cen­tral Mex­ico, where they spend the win­ter hang­ing in clus­ters from the branches of Pam Spencer, a self-taught ex­pert on monarch but­ter­flies, raises them at her home. The pop­u­la­tion has de­clined 80 per­cent to 90 per­cent over the past two decades. The monarch but­ter­fly is on the World Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion’s near-threat­ened list. oy­amel fir trees.

Those that live west of the Rock­ies make a sim­i­lar mi­gra­tion to a few sites in coastal Cal­i­for­nia. Clus­tered tightly in dense leaves, they cre­ate a tem­per­ate en­vi­ron­ment through the win­ter be­fore be­gin­ning their re­turn flight home in early spring.

The mi­gra­tions are so con­sis­tent and car­ried out so pre­cisely that sci­en­tists are still try­ing to fig­ure out how the in­sects do it — and how they pass their col­lec­tive knowl­edge along.

“Amaz­ingly, they fly in masses to the same win­ter roosts, of­ten to the ex­act same trees,” Tay­lor says.

Mon­archs are valu­able as pol­li­na­tors. And fans say the over­win­ter­ing phe­nom­e­non alone is a thing of rare beauty.

Betsy Kadow, a ranger at Lake Roland Park, and her mother, Kathy, a nat­u­ral­ist at Cromwell Val­ley Park, drove to Cal­i­for­nia last win­ter to see it up close.

The but­ter­flies that had set­tled in a grove in Pismo Beach were so tightly packed, they say, that they looked at first like leaves.

“There seemed to be mil­lions hud­dled on each tree. It was ab­so­lutely breath­tak­ing,” Betsy says.

Ore­gon Ridge Na­ture Cen­ter and Ladew Top­i­ary Gar­dens in Monk­ton are cer­ti­fied Monarch Watch way sta­tions, two of dozens in Mary­land. Oth­ers are the Eden Mill Na­ture Cen­ter in north­ern Har­ford County and the Ma­sonville Cove En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter in Bal­ti­more.

One of the more fruit­ful is Spencer’s place, near War­ren El­e­men­tary School.

As her fas­ci­na­tion with the species deep­ened, Spencer didn’t just keep the milk­weed plant and add more. She planted zin­nias, gold­en­rod, Mex­i­can sun­flow­ers and other nec­tar-rich flow­ers, and bought aquar­ium-like tanks for nur­tur­ing eggs and cater­pil­lars each year.

She also com­pleted the 40-hour train­ing reg­i­men of the Bal­ti­more County Mas­ter Gar­den­ers, a pro­gram of the Univer­sity of Mary­land Ex­ten­sion, an ed­u­ca­tional out- reach group.

As a vol­un­teer, Spencer trav­els the state giv­ing lec­tures on the but­ter­fly. She hosts tag-and-re­lease par­ties at schools, hos­pi­tals and cen­ters for the dis­abled. She sees mon­archs as a heal­ing force. When she learned that a young pa­tient she was car­ing for was cu­ri­ous about the in­sects, she in­vited him to her house to learn more.

The boy, Kyle Reed­holm of Cock­eysville, now 9, had been hos­pi­tal­ized with pneu­mo­nia.

He has been study­ing mon­archs for the past year and rais­ing them at home, and has given talks about the but­ter­flies at school.

He was in Spencer’s back­yard last week as she pre­pared to re­lease her 500th monarch this year.

Spencer held one out to Kyle, who held it gen­tly, lifted it high and smiled as he let it go.

“Good­bye and have a great trip,” he said, “wher­ever you end up.”


Pam Spencer, a pe­di­atric nurse who lives in Cock­eysville, is pic­tured in her back­yard with a but­ter­fly on a Mex­i­can sun­flower. Spencer has reared, tagged and re­leased nearly 2,000 monarch but­ter­flies. “It’s crazy,” she says. “It has turned into this big, beau­ti­ful thing.”


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