Rib­bon of but­ter­flies 500 miles wide brings hope

T.O.’s milk­weed ma­nia de­liv­ers mon­archs

Midtown Post - - Currents - DAVID SUZUKI

In th­ese tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal times, in­spi­ra­tional sto­ries are more im­por­tant than ever. Here’s one about how peo­ple power is fu­elling a sur­pris­ing come­back.

It starts with a quiet dis­ap­pear­ance that grad­u­ally builds to a his­toric wave of or­ange. And it may of­fer a balm for the seem­ingly end­less bar­rage of neg­a­tive news.

Folks in Eastern Canada may have no­ticed some­thing joy­ous in the air this sum­mer: an abun­dance of monarch but­ter­flies. Af­ter a cou­ple of decades of de­cline, it ap­pears mon­archs had a great sum­mer, cul­mi­nat­ing in an unusu­ally strong mi­gra­tion over the past few weeks, with rib­bons of or­ange “500 miles wide” flow­ing south­ward.

The re­turn of mon­archs is great news, be­cause only four years ago their sit­u­a­tion looked bleak. The eastern monarch pop­u­la­tion had plum­meted from one bil­lion two decades be­fore to only 35 mil­lion.

The dra­matic de­cline spurred the David Suzuki Foun­da­tion’s first #Got­milk­weed cam­paign. The foun­da­tion of­fered milk­weed plants, which mon­archs re­quire for sur­vival, although there was some un­cer­tainty about how many cus­tomers would be in­ter­ested in this par­tic­u­lar type of “weed.”

Cana­di­ans’ col­lec­tive love for mon­archs and the ur­gency of their plight trans­lated into brisk sales, though, re­sult­ing in the foun­da­tion dis­tribut­ing more than 30,000 milk­weed plants and a half-mil­lion seeds. Milk­weed ma­nia spread through­out the rest of the monarch’s north­ern range, from eastern Man­i­toba to the Mar­itimes, with countless groups and in­di­vid­u­als adding milk­weed and other but­ter­fly-friendly plants to gar­dens, school­yards, parks and road­sides.

Vol­un­teer “rangers” with the foun­da­tion’s But­ter­fly­way Project have found par­tic­u­larly cre­ative ways to add but­ter­fly­friendly habi­tat. They’ve planted neigh­bour­hood net­works of “ca­noe gar­dens” filled with na­tive wild­flow­ers, hosted fun mu­si­cal pa­rades and filled laneways with colour­ful but­ter­fly-in­spired mu­rals by lo­cal street artists. City gov­ern­ments have also taken flight. Markham be­came the first monar­ch­friendly city in Canada. Toronto be­came the largest city in North Amer­ica to sign the May­ors’ Monarch Pledge, while also adopt­ing one of Canada’s most am­bi­tious pol­li­na­tor strate­gies. More than a dozen On­tario com­mu­ni­ties and nine mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have all joined the grow­ing move­ment to bring mon­archs back.

Milk­weed can now be found in many gar­den cen­tres and nurs­eries in Toronto and else­where, and an ob­ser­vant neigh­bour­hood wan­der com­monly in­cludes a few patches of milk­weed. The trans­for­ma­tion of milk­weed from nox­ious weed to Eastern Canada’s most in-de­mand na­tive plant in a few short years is noth­ing short of in­spi­ra­tional.

But we still won­dered if the mon­archs would come back.

One of the big­gest driv­ers of monarch de­cline is use of the her­bi­cide glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup) that has erad­i­cated milk­weed on mil­lions of hectares of crop­land along monarch mi­gra­tion routes. Ex­treme weather is monarch en­emy num­ber two. Se­vere droughts can cause havoc, and win­ter storms can wipe out tens of mil­lions of mon­archs. So, even if we plant a ton of milk­weed, mon­archs won’t be out of the woods.

This sum­mer, though, has been epic. The mi­gra­tion north­ward was strong, and our sum­mer weather was ideal from a monarch’s per­spec­tive. Renowned monarch re­searcher Chip Tay­lor at the Uni­ver­sity of Kansas has sug­gested this win­ter’s pop­u­la­tion may be the strong­est in a decade.

Although the fu­ture of mon­archs re­mains in peril, we should savour the won­der of th­ese but­ter­flies and cel­e­brate the col­lec­tive im­pact that thou­sands of gar­den­ers, rangers, cit­i­zens, busi­nesses, bu­reau­crats and politi­cians can have when we dig in.

Th­ese ef­forts of­fer a glimpse of how the un­ex­pected can hap­pen. De­spite weigh­ing less than a pa­per clip, mon­archs fly 4,000 kilo­me­tres to forests they’ve never been to. De­spite decades of be­ing unloved and erad­i­cated, a plant like milk­weed can be pop­u­lar­ized. De­spite be­ing on the brink of ex­tinc­tion, mon­archs can be plen­ti­ful. And de­spite our messy po­lit­i­cal land­scape, we can al­ter the land­scape of our neigh­bour­hoods, mak­ing an ef­fort to bring a bit more na­ture home to our gar­dens, yards, school­yards and parks.

So, be­fore the next po­lit­i­cal bomb­shell plunges you into de­spair, I urge you to take a deep breath. Smell the flow­ers. Re­con­nect with the won­ders of na­ture. And re­mem­ber that we can all bring hope and joy, one small step at a time.

Markham be­came the first monarch-friendly city in Canada

David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Na­ture of Things and au­thor of more than 30 books on ecol­ogy (with files from Jode Roberts).

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