COVID-19 pandemic upends Monarch Watch programming, but annual butterfly migration continuing mostly as normal

photo by: Ashley Golledge

A monarch butterfly pollinates a flower at the Baker Wetlands on Saturday, September 22, 2018.

A local effort to tag and track monarch butterflies on their migration to Mexico hasn’t been able to hold its usual public events because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the insects’ annual journey is continuing mostly as normal, the project’s director says.

Monarch Watch, a program housed on the west campus of the University of Kansas, has for years sought to educate the public on the declining population of monarch butterflies through open houses and tagging events at the Baker Wetlands. In these events, members of the public catch butterflies and attach tags to them so that researchers can track them as they migrate.

But the ongoing pandemic forced all of those events to be canceled, longtime Monarch Watch director Chip Taylor told the Journal-World.

“Each of these events attracts 600 to 800 people, so that represents a loss in our ability to reach out to the public and especially to engage with the young people in our community,” said Taylor, who is also a KU professor emeritus in ecology and evolutionary biology.

As it has for most organizations in the United States, COVID-19 has also hurt Monarch Watch financially, Taylor said.

“The virus has … reduced our income to a significant degree as well, and we are trying to adapt as are so many others,” he said in an email.

But while the country remains in crisis, the actual monarch migration — a 3,000-mile journey south to avoid freezing winter temperatures — has continued mostly as normal, Taylor said. In fact, it’s actually been more expedient at times than in recent years, when high temperatures and strong winds have delayed the trek.

“So far, the weather has cooperated and the migration has progressed very much as I forecast,” he said.

The migration began to move through the Lawrence area on Sept. 13, and its peak likely occurred last week, Taylor said. The last monarchs should move through the region in the first week of October, he said.

But just because the migration is normal doesn’t mean things are all right for the monarchs, Taylor said, as the butterflies’ population has been dwindling for years. Taylor and his colleagues released new research in August that cast doubt on what had previously been a prevailing thought in the field: that the declining population was due to an increased mortality rate during migration.

In reality, Taylor said research indicates that isn’t the case. He said the population decline is actually due to increased land usage in the U.S. causing destruction of habitats that the monarchs use for food and reproduction.

The upper Midwest is particularly to blame, Taylor said. Monarchs feed on a plant called milkweed, but he said that plant has become more and more scarce because of trends in the agriculture industry. Specifically, he blamed rising herbicide use on farmland, and he said that much land that previously housed milkweed is now used to grow corn in order to meet alcohol production goals for a federally mandated renewable fuel standard.

“In short, monarchs (and many other species) are victims of technology and a federal policy,” Taylor said.

A focus of Monarch Watch’s work every year is restoring milkweed plants, but monarchs are still losing around 2 million acres of habitat each year. It isn’t clear that the restoration efforts are matching those losses, Taylor said.

“Sustaining the monarch migration will require a massive effort to restore milkweeds in the upper Midwest, since that is the region that produced the majority of monarchs that reach the overwintering sites in Mexico,” he said.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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