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Director's Corner

Dan Ashe served as FWS Director from June 2011 until January 2017. The following is an archive of blogs authored by Director Ashe during that time. This content is intended for historical reference only and not as a representation of current Service policy or opinion.

A Small Step for the Monarch – a Giant Leap for Conservation

Conservation is in many ways a profession of faith – not in wildlife or the environment, but in people.

Faith that future generations will value and sustain the wildlife and wild places we protect and entrust to their care. Faith that habitat restoration will make a difference for species in trouble, even if that habitat won’t mature for decades.

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That’s why, of all the things I get to do as Director and the achievements I value in my career, there’s nothing quite like getting outside with kids and seeing the feeling of accomplishment and wonder blossom in their faces when they help wildlife. I find myself hoping that the seed planted by that experience will one day sprout, helping to shape their values and maybe even spurring them to become conservationists themselves.

This week, I was privileged to join conservation professionals from across the United States, Canada and Mexico at the Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Conservation and Management annual meeting in San Diego. It’s a complex name for a gathering with a singular focus – finding ways to help our three nations work together to conserve North America’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Girl Scouts and conservation leaders celebrate monarchs at San Diego Bay NWR. Photo by Lisa Cox/USFWS

The Trilateral is mostly day-long meetings and presentations as we work to identify shared priority actions and areas of cooperation. But we managed to get out of the meeting hall for the afternoon to visit the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It’s an amazing collection of habitats and protected space in the midst of 3 million people.

From our Midwest Region: Working with Our Partners Across North America to Conserve Monarchs

Some may wonder why we took the time to visit the refuge, given all the pressing business we had. But the answer lies in the habitat work we did with a group of young Girl Scouts from the area.

These girls were truly impressive, forming a color guard and presenting the flags of Mexico, the United States and Canada to welcome us to the refuge. They jumped at the opportunity to work with us to plant 90 native milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants on the refuge. If all goes well, in coming years these plants will host wintering and breeding monarch butterflies and other pollinators who depend on them for food and shelter.

A monarch fans its wings after hatching. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

As you probably know, the monarch is in trouble. Less than 20 years ago, the Eastern population of monarchs wintering in Mexico was estimated at more than one billion. Last year, that population numbered only about 50 million butterflies.

The Western population, most of which breeds and winters along the California coast, has also declined steeply. The overwintering population is now half of its long-term average – and in some places declines are even worse.

What we do as professionals to conserve the monarch and other species at a continental level is important. But what happens on a small plot of ground in a refuge or in thousands of back yards across the continent is equally vital to the future of this species.

Digging in the dirt with these young ladies, I saw the future of conservation. Their passion and enthusiasm were obvious as they learned about the importance of milkweed. Their pride when they looked out over a field of newly-planted habitat was a moving reminder of why I decided to make conservation my career.

Dan and a Scout check on a planting.  Photo by Lisa Cox/USFWS

Each of my conservation heroes – Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Ding Darling, Olaus and Mardy Murie – began their journey with a moment like this. A moment in their childhood – however small and inconsequential it may have seemed at the time – when they held nature in their hand and realized that they had the power to make a difference.

In our day and age, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the global forces shaping our world. But if we act together – if we have faith in each other and our descendants – the actions we take can have an enormous impact.

Those Girl Scouts may one day grow up to be CEOs, Senators, wildlife biologists or stockbrokers. One of them may be the next Rachel Carson.

Regardless, I suspect that they will carry that sense of wonder and accomplishment with them. I hope it will help guide some of the decisions they make as voters, citizens and parents in the decades to come.

What took place at the refuge represents a small step for monarch conservation, but a giant leap forward for conservation. I hope you’ll magnify that impact by taking your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews out in the back yard to plant some milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants.

You’ll be glad you did.

Everyone loves butterflies. My sister in law is a Girl Scout leader. What species milkweed did they plant. Where did they get it. Who will water it to establish it. As busy as you are Dan you might have called the leader and suggested they go to the local garden center and buy some milkweed and take it home and plant it in their backyard. If they don't have a yard they could plant it at their school where it would be convenient to water and observe the monarch lifestyle. If I get a chance to work at FWS in a couple years, I'll encourage the 17000 facility grower/garden center industry to promote milkweed. Of course that won't cost any tax dollars. That will give me more time to promote eating prairie chicken. You ever seen them do the two-step ? If people acquire a taste for them just think how many there will be ;)
# Posted By Craig The Butterflyman | 4/20/15 6:26 AM

Hi Craig,
The species of milkweed planted was a native one, called the Narrow-leaved milkweed, or Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis). We acquired the milkweed from a local native plant nursery. You can look up what milkweed works best in your area at: http://www.monarchjointventure.org/get-involved/cr...

Good luck with your future plans. The agriculture industry is an important partner in monarch conservation. http://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/
# Posted By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | 4/20/15 4:26 PM

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