Gardeners urged to create monarch habitat
One of the most widely recognized butterflies in North America, the monarch, is disappearing fast. Most of that decline is blamed on changing land use, but property owners can help shore up the population by setting aside monarch “way stations” filled with milkweed and other nectar-rich plants.
The extent of the milkweed-monarch habitat loss since 1996 is believed to be an area roughly the size of Texas, said Orley (Chip) Taylor, an ecology professor at the University of Kansas and founding director of Monarch Watch, an education, conservation and research group.
“We’re not looking at extinction, but the migration could decline to the point at which recovery could take many years — if ever,” Taylor said.
In the 1990s, up to 1 billion monarchs made the flight each fall from the northern U.S. and Canada to the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than 1 million overwintered in forested groves on the California coast, according to the Xerces Society. “Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 56.5 million monarchs remain, representing a decline of more than 80 percent from the 21-year average across North America,” the conservation group said.
Any monarch recovery effort will take a broad commitment beyond just the agricultural sector, Taylor said.
“The monarch migration will not be saved unless there is both a bottom-up (citizen-driven) and top-down (government) commitment to the restoration of habitats,” he said.
The most effective response is planting monarch “way stations” or habitats in non-crop areas — on school grounds, along roadsides and rights of way, in parks, businesses, residential areas or other unused sites, Taylor said. These plots can provide the resources needed to produce successive generations of monarchs and sustain them during their migration.
Way stations can be placed in or near existing gardens and should be at least 100 square feet in size. Butterflies and butterfly plants need at least six hours of sun per day.
In this June 24, 2010 photo, a swallowtail butterfly gathers pollen and nectar from milkweed near New Market, Va. Monarch way stations provide nectar for adults and host plants for their larvae.