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A Talk on the Wild Side.

With Monarch Butterflies, Service and Partners Hope to Replicate Success of Bald Eagle Recovery


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

The coservation effort to "#SavetheMonarchs" is the Spotlight of the spring edition of Fish & Wildlife News. In addition to stories highlighting some of our best work, you'll find columns and articles on the monarch butterfly  conservation campaign, including this introduction to the campaign by the Service's Michael Gale and Donita Cotter.

A billion monarch butterflies once fluttered across the North American landscape, representing one of the greatest migration phenomena in all of nature. Over the last 20 years, their numbers declined precipitously, with the eastern population falling to a mere 33 million last year. This year, that number grew to approximately 56.5  million butterflies that concentrated on less than three acres at overwintering sites in Mexico – hardly enough to assure the monarch’s migration for generations to come. The vast continental range of the monarch butterfly presents a complex host of challenges to saving this charismatic insect.

But we have done this before.

The population of bald eagles – America’s national bird –hit rock bottom in 1963 with just 417 nesting pairs in the contiguous United States. You probably know the story: DDT, a widely used insecticide, built up in adult eagles and thinned the shells of their eggs that would crack while being incubated by the parents. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, the Service took a host of conservation actions, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring set off a firestorm that changed the country’s view of the natural world and ended the indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT. Today, more than 10,000 pairs of bald eagles roam the country from coast to coast.

Monarch caterpillars need milkweed. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS

For the monarch butterfly, arguably the continent’s most beloved butterfly, many threats loom, especially the loss of native milkweed it needs to lay its eggs and for its caterpillars need to eat. Nectar plants are also critical to feed the adult butterflies in spring, summer and fall as they migrate more than 3,000 miles between their winter sanctuary in Mexico and breeding habitats across the United States and up into Canada. The wide-scale adoption of herbicide-resistant corn and soy crops, has drastically changed the agricultural landscape, once a vibrant source of breeding and migrating habitat for monarchs. This resistance enables broad and non-targeted application of herbicides that indiscriminately kills vegetation growing around farm fields and in nearby habitat, including milkweed.

Every backyard can become an oasis for monarchs and other pollinators—even in cities. Schools, youth and community groups, businesses, and state and local governments can engage in planting native milkweed and nectar plants, and protecting monarch habitat along roadsides, rights-of-way and other areas.

“We need to create alternate habitat for the monarch butterfly,” Service Director Dan Ashe shared with reporters at the National Press Club before Valentine’s Day when he announced an ambitious campaign, working with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (which received $1.2 million from the Service to create a Monarch Conservation Fund) to save the monarch butterfly.

In the words of Colin O’Mara, the National Wildlife Federation’s CEO, “This is a problem we can fix.”  Again, we have done it before.

Beyond their beauty and now well-known status, monarchs are excellent indicators of the health of the American landscape, including productive and essential croplands in the Midwest. Monarch declines are symptomatic of environmental problems that also pose risks to food production, the spectacular natural places that help define the national identity, and human health.

Friends of Brazoria Wildlife Refuges and the Texas Master Naturalist Program - Cradle of Texas Chapter helped bring a little “wild” to the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, during their annual KBR Kids Day Celebration in October. Photo by Pete Romfh

The alarm has been raised, and the Service has answered the call. This year alone, the Service will work with partners to restore and enhance more than 200,000 acres of habitat for monarchs and other pollinators on public and private lands. On top of that, the agency has dedicated an additional $2 million in funding for priority projects in three key geographic areas:

  • In spring breeding areas in Texas and Oklahoma, projects include a Native Pollinator Initiative in Texas and an effort to increase commercial production of milkweed;
  • In the Midwest Corn Belt, an area important for summer breeding, projects include Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project and efforts by the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which engages private landowners in conservation;
  • In areas west of the Rockies, the Service is funding work to develop a range-wide approach for conserving the western monarch population.

The Service has also laid out a four-pronged framework for inspiring innovation and conservation action for monarchs and other pollinators inside and outside of the agency:


The Service is uniquely positioned to lead and coordinate landscape-level conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly. The collective efforts of federal, state, tribal and local governments – along with private industry, non-profits, universities and anyone with a backyard – will be needed to tackle this enormous challenge. Such a gathering of forces requires leadership. Director Ashe chairs an Interagency High Level Working Group on Monarch Conservation that brings together the federal family for coordinated action.

But the effort can’t stop there: state, tribal and municipal governments play an important role. Through the Monarch Joint Venture, a diverse partnership coordinating efforts to protect the monarch migration across the United States, the Service can tap the major players working on monarchs and invest in the resources needed to tackle this problem from the broadest perspective.

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

The monarch also requires habitat and conservation action in Mexico and Canada, which is why the Service is working through the Trilateral Committee of the three nations to develop collaborative efforts throughout the entire range of the butterfly.


The Service and all its partners have a role in contributing to science-based, adaptive management to support increasing the monarch population in a changing climate. The Service is working with scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Monarch Joint Venture to find the best available science to refine, focus and implement strategic, landscape-scale solutions to this monumental conservation challenge. Leveraging its Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC) approach, the Service will use the monarch butterfly as a flagship species for the agency’s pollinator work. That means that the work conserving and connecting habitat for monarchs will help other critical   insect and avian pollinators.

But there’s still a lot that isn’t known. The Service’s Science Applications Program and the Refuge System’s Natural Resources Program Center are working collaboratively with USGS and the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) Network to identify and develop needed tools and monitoring approaches, and to develop a strategy to identify knowledge gaps and critical research needs.


A monarch butterfly takes in the sun at Sullys Hill Game Preserve in North Dakota. Photo by USFWS

Scientists estimate that monarchs need a million and a half acres of additional habitat each year to grow the eastern population to 300 million butterflies by 2024. The Service contributes greatly to this national goal by delivering conservation on its own lands as well as through partnerships on other federal and state-owned lands and on private lands through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Coastal programs. There’s also a lot that can be done by tweaking land management practices to benefit pollinators, from when to mow to adapting the size and schedule of prescribed burns.

 Working with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, the agricultural community can be educated about the importance of native milkweed and other nectar plants, and how pesticide use can be reduced and modified to protect pollinators without sacrificing crop productivity. And the Service isn’t neglecting the need to increase the availability of native seed for habitat restoration.



A boy visits with a monarch. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

Perhaps never before has the Service been presented with such a grand opportunity to inspire a new generation of conservationists in America than with the quest to save the monarch. In February, the agency launched a public awareness campaign to engage news media, conservation allies, educators, state agencies, local officials, corporations, the agriculture community and others – particularly in urban areas. From pollinator gardens on Service lands to schoolyard habitats, the Service will work with such partners as the National Wildlife Federation and Monarch Joint Venture to get communities excited about the monarch butterfly. Individual actions matter, from planting milkweed to participating in citizen science monitoring projects. At the end of a decade, the collective actions of individuals will be what saved the monarch butterfly.

Like this article? It is featured in the Service's quarterly magazine Fish & Wildlife News.

The road to saving the monarch is long, winding, even hilly and fully of roadblocks. But working together with conservation partners, along with battalions of schoolteachers, children and community leaders, we can overcome the hurdles and find a path to success.

You can’t help but draw a comparison between the plight of the monarch and the dramatic journey of the bald eagle – an instantly recognizable animal, an expansive range and a prominent role for man-made chemicals in its demise. With a national conservation effort, we went from just over 400 bald eagles to 10,000 – with the same coordination, we can go from 100 million to 1 billion monarch butterflies. Such a leap requires the engagement of Americans everywhere, and the commitment to take action before it’s too late.


Michael Gale is a Special Assistant with the Service working on monarch butterflies. Donita Cotter is the National Monarch Conservation Coordinator in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

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