KU biologist suggests ethanol mandate, climate caused dramatic monarch decline

Monarch butterflies gather in Mexico during their winter migration in 2009. Monarch habitats are being threatened by development, logging and cold weather, and fewer monarchs are now in Mexico than ever before. Chip Taylor, director of KU's Monarch Watch, says that if current trends continue, the entire annual migration could be threatened.

When filling up at the gas station with ethanol, drivers may think they’re helping the environment. Orley “Chip” Taylor, biologist and director of Kansas University’s Monarch Watch, disagrees.

In 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act set a national goal of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels such as ethanol by 2022, causing corn and soybean production to soar and farmers to turn wild prairie into cropland. In the process, Taylor said, the majority of monarch habitats were destroyed.

“Last year alone we lost 400,000 acres of monarch habitat just due to the conversion of grassland and wetland to crops because of the biofuel initiative,” Taylor said. “We’ve got 30 million more acres of corn and soybean than we had in 1996, most of which occurred after the ethanol mandate.”

The habitat destruction ultimately led to the current all-time low monarch population, Taylor said. In just 17 years, the total area occupied by monarch colonies has dropped from 20.97 acres to just .67 of an acre.

Monarch populations rely on milkweed, a perennial plant historically common on Midwest prairies. Monarchs lay eggs exclusively on milkweed, so fewer milkweeds means less reproduction.

“It’s basically the pollinators that keep the ecosystem alive,” Taylor said. “It’s foolish to simply ruin this support base that supports us.”

While the destruction of habitats has contributed to the monarch’s dramatic decrease, it’s not all because of ethanol. A recent New York Times article in which Taylor was quoted attributed the butterfly’s decline to climate change. Taylor said monarch migration is dependent on temperature.

“2012 was an extraordinarily hot year, which made the monarchs develop really fast,” Taylor said. “They moved too far north too soon and dispersed all over Canadian provinces. There’s not a lot of milkweed there, so it wasn’t a good thing.”

Taylor said 2013 was not much better.

“It was just too cold to move north so butterflies arrived late to the breeding areas,” Taylor said. “Then it rained when they arrived and it’s hard for butterflies to get out there and be sexy and lay eggs in the rain.”

While we can’t control the weather, Taylor said, people can ease the monarch’s decline by restoring habitats and planting milkweed.

To help, Taylor’s Monarch Watch on KU’s West Campus partnered with Applied Ecological Services of Baldwin City to produce 25,000 milkweed pods to distribute last year. The group is already taking orders and plans to distribute 45,000 to 60,000 milkweed pods this year.

Additionally, a few individuals offered to provide money to sponsor milkweed pods for schools and non-profit organizations. Each school or nonprofit selected will receive a free flat holding 323 of the plants.

To purchase milkweeds or to apply for the school and nonprofit free milkweed program, visit www.monarchwatch.org.