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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: Monarch fever has hit northern California and southern Oregon

Region 8, October 26, 2017
Jennifer Jones and children from Etna Elementary School planting the pollinator garden, part of the Schoolyard Habitat project.
Jennifer Jones and children from Etna Elementary School planting the pollinator garden, part of the Schoolyard Habitat project. - Photo Credit: n/a
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed. - Photo Credit: n/a
Monarch butterfly emerging from a Chrysalis in the classroom!
Monarch butterfly emerging from a Chrysalis in the classroom! - Photo Credit: n/a
Tagged monarch butterfly.
Tagged monarch butterfly. - Photo Credit: n/a

Monarch fever has hit northern California and southern Oregon, and there appears to be no end in sight!

Throughout Jackson and Klamath counties in Oregon and Siskiyou County in California, Jennifer Jones and Akimi King from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working with partners from schools to golf courses to provide monarch education and create habitat.

Monarch butterflies have been experiencing dramatic declines in recent years. According to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation, the number of western North American monarch butterflies has declined by 97 percent in just over three decades, putting the population at risk of extinction.

The study also noted that the number of monarchs spending the winter in coastal California has dropped from 10 million in the 1980s, to barely 300,000 now. The causes for this decline are: loss of milkweed, the caterpillar’s only food source; loss of habitat due to urbanization, development, and agriculture; natural enemies such as predation, disease, and parasites; adverse weather and pesticides; and even climate change.

But Service scientists are doing something about it.

“In the wild, less than 10 percent of monarch caterpillars survive to adulthood,” said Jones, a wildlife biologist at the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office. “By bringing in eggs from outside to rear indoors, the odds of survival significantly improve.”

One of the most successful and rewarding programs King and Jones administer is helping students and teachers conduct controlled rearing of monarchs in the classroom.

“This project not only teaches students about the life cycle of butterflies, it also increases survival of eggs that make it to adulthood by 85 to 90 percent,” said King. This fall, Jones helped almost 200 students from four schools by providing enclosures and information about monarch life history, habitat requirements, threats and conservation efforts, and tips for caring for the monarchs in the classroom. King, a biologist at the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office has been helping students raise monarchs for three years. This year she worked with approximately 347 students at eight schools, and estimates 2,300 visitors viewed her rearing enclosures and displays at libraries and the museum in the Klamath Falls area.

Between them, the biologists tagged 130 monarchs this season and submitted the data to the regional database to monitor their migration patterns. Less than one percent of all tagged monarchs are recovered. So far this season, one of King’s tagged butterflies was later detected in Santa Barbara, having traveled 545 miles in 19 days!

“What was truly remarkable about this tag recovery is the fact that the female butterfly broke reproductive diapause and began laying eggs upon reaching sunny southern California,” said Dr. David James, Associate Professor of Entomology at Washington State University. “Fourth generation monarchs don’t normally breed until the following spring, so this was a brand new discovery for our west coast population.”

Raising Monarchs
Teachers expressed how valuable it was to raise monarchs in the classroom because it allowed them to use real world experiences for hands-on student learning.

“In sixth grade, students learn about the characteristics of living things and life cycles,” said Linda Terry, teacher from the Willow Wind Community Learning Center in Ashland, Oregon. “Raising monarchs fit in perfectly with the curriculum.”

Kerry Wessel, a second grade teacher at Etna Elementary School in northern California, enjoyed the opportunity to integrate geography when teaching about monarch migration.

“We look on the map and see how far they travel and talk about why they migrate,” Wessel said. “It is a fun and engaging moment of teaching to include such wonderful places as Monterey and Mexico into our life science. My students want to explore and learn more about the butterflies and where they live each year they raise the monarch, which is really exciting.”

“Raising butterflies in the classroom gave my students the opportunity to engage in current Next Generation Science Standards while seeing the process unfold before their eyes, which makes it very real and imprints learning that lasts,” said Cheryl Horvath, kindergarten teacher at Fort Jones Elementary school in northern California.

The benefits of raising monarchs in the classroom reach far beyond learning about their life cycles and basic biology. Terry was delighted to see the care and nurturing her students showed when they adopted three caterpillars and one chrysalis to raise.

She found that the first thing they’d do when they came into the classroom was to check on the monarchs. They were amazed to see the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis, and chrysalis to butterfly. It was like magic to them.

Her students even gave them names: Jonathan, Delilah, Fremmington, and Helga (who was later renamed as Helgo when they discovered it was a boy). The students were crushed when Johnathan had to be euthanized because of being infected with tachinid fly.

“I feel sad that the monarch died before it could even fly, and that it would never see the world from above,” said fourth grader Natalie Huang.

One of King’s students was more intrigued by the parasitism. “Our chrysalis had fly maggots come out of it like aliens,” said Omar, a third grade student at Sterns Elementary School.

Educating not only students, but the general public, is important to spread the word about what can be done to help the monarch. The Yreka FWO hosted a workshop by Tom Landis, retired U.S. Forest Service Nursery Specialist and local monarch educator, for members of the public about the fascinating life of the monarch butterfly and what everyday citizens can do to help conserve this imperiled species. At the end of the workshop, Landis distributed milkweed seed and rhizomes for the participants to plant at home.

Creating Habitat
Providing education and raising monarchs in captivity is only half the battle. The monarchs also need milkweed for the caterpillars to eat and flowering nectar plants for the adult butterflies to fuel up on before making their long migration journey.

“Growing native milkweeds and establishing pollinator gardens is one of the quickest and easiest ways to help monarch butterflies,” Landis said. “The Monarch Waystation program consists of creating specialized pollinator gardens that monarchs can use for food and shelter on their long migrations. Creating a monarch waystation is something that everyone can do to make a difference.”

King is working with partners to increase monarch habitat and plant monarch waystations in the area: libraries, community gardens, schools (preschool through colleges), churches, parks, nurseries, nature trails and centers, women and children shelter, Master Gardeners, Girls and Boys Scouts, businesses, hospital, private landowners, and the YMCA, just to name a few.

Jones is helping Fort Jones and Etna Elementary Schools to secure funding to augment their Schoolyard Habitat projects she helped develop with the schools in the fall of 2015 and spring of 2016, respectively. She is also helping Helman Elementary School and Willow Wind Community Learning Center to secure a National Wildlife Federation grant to create Monarch Waystations. The Helman project will replace invasive blackberry with native milkweed and other flowering plants around Helman Pond. The work and maintenance will be done in part by the students at Helman Elementary School and members of a local Girl Scout Troop. The Girl Scouts will be earning their Wildlife Schoolyard Certification and Silver Award, which requires work on a community project that will have a lasting impact, through their efforts and have already dug into the project.

During the first workday event this fall, Girl Scout Leader Stacey Faught witnessed that “the Girl Scouts became so motivated once they understood how important the work they were doing was to restore the habitat, and gained such a sense of pride when they saw the immediate improvements they were making. So often, young people feel they don't know how to have an impact in this world, and this project empowers them to know they can make a difference within their local and global community.”

In an effort to reach out to non-traditional partners, Jones and Landis contacted the Weed Golf Course to see if they’d be interested in creating a Monarch Waystation at their site.

“Given the large amount of open space and availability of sun and water, the golf course seemed a perfect opportunity to increase monarch habitat locally,” said Dolph Marshall, Weed Golf Course manager.

Landis hopes to give a monarch presentation this fall to club members and the public at the golf club to recruit a committed group of volunteers to help plant and maintain the waystation. The seventh and eighth grade classes at Butteville Elementary School have pledged to help with the project.

"Learning about monarch butterflies ties into our study of ecosystems. More importantly, the decline of the monarch butterfly allows us to do something positive and play a part in resurrecting monarch habitat,” said Leonard May, seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Butteville Elementary School.

“With all the depressing news in the media about monarch populations declining, creating habitat for the monarchs, especially for the ones the students raised and released, is a very positive and rewarding experience for these young citizen scientists to feel like they are making this world a better place,” said Jones.

Both Jones and King are coordinators for the Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Program and serve on the Region 8 Connecting People with Nature team. To join the monarch movement and learn more about the monarch programs, King and Jones can be contacted at:

Akimi King, akimi_king@fws.gov, (541) 885-2515
Jennifer Jones, jennifer_jones@fws.gov, (530) 841-3109

For more information about local monarch conservation efforts, please visit the Pacific Southwest Region’s monarch website at: https://www.fws.gov/cno/es/Monarch/Monarch.cfm
and the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates website at: http://somonarchs.org/

Contact Info: Pam Bierce, 916-414-6542, pamela_bierce@fws.gov