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Hope for a monarch miracle?

Paul Smith’s College VIC: Residents can help now-endangered migratory monarchs

Allison Lamb, a Paul Smith’s College senior of the Paul Smith’s College VIC Butterfly House, gets ready to release a Buckeye butterfly in the house on July 28. (News photo — Lauren Yates)

PAUL SMITHS — The choral flap of migratory monarch butterfly wings abounded at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center on Thursday, July 28 — music to the ears after a recent announcement that the butterflies are now classified as an endangered species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, recently added migratory monarch butterflies to its list of endangered species. Martha Van der Voort, the program coordinator at the VIC, said that while the butterfly decline is severe, there’s a glimmer of hope to be found in the new endangered classification. Van der Voort said this could help spread awareness that the migratory monarchs are in danger and could encourage people to help boost monarch populations.

The Butterfly House at the VIC — where around 200 migratory monarchs are protected and tagged each year before their migration south — is just one example of local efforts to boost monarch populations, and butterfly house volunteer Cindy Watson said people are already stopping in to ask how they can help, too.

Severe threats

Monarch butterfly (News photo — Lauren Yates)

Migratory monarchs are a specific species of monarchs that migrate from central Mexico to northern North America before returning back to Mexico — a 6,000-mile round-trip adventure that takes four generations of the butterflies to complete. But in recent years, the butterflies have faced threats from deforestation and the use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides in what Van der Voort calls “big agriculture.”

Massive farms that clear large swaths of land for monocropping and use pesticides to maintain their crops — especially farms in the Midwest where there’s a large migratory pathway for monarchs — have been systematically threatening the monarch population by wiping out milkweed, the one and only plant that the migratory monarchs use to lay their eggs.

Climate change has also increased the threat to monarch butterflies, according to the IUCN. Droughts can limit milkweed growth and encourage wildfires, and severe heat can kill the monarchs or trigger migration patterns before milkweed is available for them. The eastern population of migratory monarch butterflies has fallen by 84% from 1996 to 2014, according to the IUCN, and the western population — which is even more endangered — has declined by an estimated 99.9% from the 1980s to 2021.

“Concern remains as to whether enough butterflies survive to maintain the populations and prevent extinction,” the IUCN wrote in a press release.

Pollinators like migratory monarchs and native bee populations are essential to life on this planet — they pollinate most of the crops grown for consumption. Without pollination, those crops would never produce food. More than 150 food crops in the U.S. depend on pollinators, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including almost all fruit and grain crops.

The U.S. hasn’t classified migratory monarch butterflies as endangered, and Van der Voort believes that’s largely a political choice — the classification would require that new federal regulations be enacted to protect them — but she said the international classification is one step in the right direction.

“What can we do?”

Watson said that people who’ve stopped in the VIC’s Butterfly House recently and learned about the threats facing monarch populations have been asking her, “what can we do?” Her answer: Plant milkweed, don’t use pesticides and start a native flower garden.

Native plants like goldenrod, wild bergamot, mountain mint and wood asters, in addition to monarchs’ host plant of milkweed, are crucial food sources for the migrating monarch butterflies, which need plenty of sustenance before they take off for Mexico in the fall. Van der Voort said goldenrod is an especially “critical” source of nectar that the butterflies need to fly south.

Even if a small patch of the plants is all a person has room for in their yard or outside their apartment, Van der Voort said the butterflies are sure to find it.

“Anybody who’s planting any amount of native vegetation that butterflies can either nectar on — just eat — or host on … is helping,” she said. “There’s no question about that.”

Watson, who was the butterfly house coordinator for two years before becoming a volunteer, said some people she’s given this advice to in years past have returned to the house to tell her about their new milkweed or native plant garden. She feels like she’s making a difference.

“We can’t change the world, right? But we can change our corner of it just by information that we give to people,” she said.

The VIC is a partner of the ADK Pollinator Project — which seeks to promote advocacy for pollinator species — and the center hosts a native plant sale every spring where locals can pick up essential native flowers that are guaranteed to be free from pesticides. Van der Voort said this year was the VIC’s fifth annual sale, and she’s seen sales steadily increasing over the years.

She thinks more and more people are learning about the value of native plants, and she hopes that more local nurseries will start carrying native species. The ADK Pollinator Project is also taking community action to boost native plants and the presence of milkweed — Van der Voort said the project has planted a bunch of pollinator plants around Lake Flower in Saranac Lake.

People who want to learn more about the ADK Pollinator Project and how to protect pollinators can visit https://tinyurl.com/2x6m3pxy.

Butterfly house

The VIC’s Butterfly House, established in 1992, was the first native butterfly house established in the U.S. Paul Smith’s College senior Allison Lamb, who’s this summer’s Butterfly House coordinator, said she wanted to take on the role because she supports the house’s mission to protect native butterfly species.

On July 28, the VIC’s Butterfly House was filled with migratory monarchs in all stages of life — caterpillars small and large munching on milkweed leaves and buds, chrysalises hanging from the top of a protected tank, and adult butterflies fluttering around the house and feasting on nectar. The house protects the butterflies to ensure they can move through all of these stages without facing threats, and the house is filled with all the native flowers the butterflies need to get ready for migration.

Van der Voort said one of the monarchs they tagged at the VIC in 2019 was later reported in Mexico. It was an exciting moment for everyone working at the Butterfly House — material proof that their efforts were paying off.