A recent Canadian report has declared the extraordinary and iconic monarch butterfly at high risk of disappearing forever. Now a scientist at Guelph University in Ontario has proven that Canada will have to play a central role if there’s to be any hope of recover. Here’s what you need to know, and what you need to do…now

Monarchs seek out milkweed for nectar and to lay their eggs. Milkweed is the sole plant monarch caterpillars eat.

ON DECEMBER 5, 2016, just a few months ago, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) announced it was changing the monarch butterfly’s status from “special concern” to “endangered.” If there were a doomsday clock that symbolized the threat facing species at risk the way the world frames the threat of nuclear war, the announcement would be the equivalent of moving the time on that clock from about 15 minutes to midnight to 11:58 p.m.

“It is a big jump,” says Dr. Carolyn Callaghan, senior conservation biologist for terrestrial wildlife with the Canadian Wildlife Federation. “An alarm bell is being sounded.”

Established by the federal Species at Risk Act as the primary authority for assessing the conservation status of wildlife species in Canada, COSEWIC is an arm’s-length body comprising species experts with scientific, aboriginal and community knowledge. When it issues a change in status, it is a serious matter. December’s announcement is no exception.

The report cites the impacts of ongoing habitat loss in the monarch’s tiny wintering grounds in Mexico coupled with increasing destruction of milkweed caterpillar breeding habitat and nectar plants in Canada and the United States for the status change. Illegal logging has caused the former; the latter has occurred chiefly because of the genetically modi ed corn, canola and soybeans that have taken hold in North America. These crops are specifically engineered to be immune to damage from a herbicide called glyphosate (the brand name is Round-Up), which is then liberally applied on crop fields to kill other weeds and plants, taking out all milkweed and nectar-producing wild flowers in the process. “Monarch butterfly migration is now recognized as a ‘threatened process’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” the COSEWIC declaration states, adding that without efforts to support the conservation of essential habitats, “monarch migration may disappear, and Canada may lose this iconic species.”

Anyone who follows wildlife news, even casually, is probably already aware of the precipitous decline in North America’s monarch butterfly population—up to 90 per cent by some measures—that has unfolded since widespread of glyphosate began in the past 15 to 20 years. The realization of this collapse has already ignited a groundswell of action from scientists, national and state governments, conservation organizations, municipalities, community groups and the private sector. Their efforts are aimed at raising knowledge and awareness, formulating policies and, of course, taking direct steps to restore habitat to halt and reverse this population trend.

The efforts are encouraging, says Callaghan, but so far, in Canada at least, we’re nowhere close to implementing the kind of concrete action plans for large-scale habitat restoration necessary to save the species. “We have great concern that we’re running out of time,” she says.

Unfortunately, while the COSEWIC decision to “uplist” the monarch to endangered status has important symbolic value, it won’t directly translate into swift action from the government of Canada. Under the Species at Risk Act, the federal minister of the environment must respond to the COSEWIC recommendation within 90 days. From there, the cabinet has nine months to decide whether or not to change its status on the SARA registry. If it does, then the next step is to write a recovery strategy. “Those [strategies] should have very clear goals and actionable items for recovery,” says Callaghan. Unfortunately, they also take years to implement. “We need the action to happen immediately.”

Callaghan isn’t the only one sounding the alarm. In January, the publication of a new research study, led by Tyler Flockhart, a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Guelph’s department of integrative biology, underscored the central role that a Canadian strategy must play if the monarch is to have any hope of recovery.

Flockhart’s study, involving a team of seven scientists, studied monarchs that had been collected over almost four decades at the Mexican overwintering colonies to determine where in eastern North America those butterflies originated. For any given year, these butterflies represent the final cohort in a four- or five-generation annual cycle of monarch reproduction and migration. That cycle starts when the overwintering butterflies leave Mexico in early spring and travel up into the southern U.S., where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants before dying. Their caterpillar offspring, which feed exclusively on milkweed, spend several weeks growing before they pupate, become adult monarchs and continue the migration farther north before reproducing in kind. This process repeats until late summer and early fall, when the monarchs alive at that time make the long migratory flight back to the pine and oyamel forests in central Mexico. There, they roost in semi-dormancy until spring returns and the cycle repeats.

It was previously thought that most of these overwintering butterflies originated in the U.S. Midwest. If true, it would suggest that is also the most important area in which to focus habitat restoration and conservation measures. Yet Flockhart’s team, by analyzing hydrogen and carbon stable isotopes in the butterflies’ wings that carry a unique location-of-origin signature, found that less than 40 per cent of the sample butteries started in the Midwest. The rest came from either two zones farther south (19 per cent) or three zones to the north and east (44 per cent). Flockhart estimates the number of overwintering monarchs that originated in Canada represented, on average, about 30 per cent of the total.

Just as noteworthy, says Flockhart, is that the proportion of butterflies coming from each region didn’t change significantly over the 40-year survey period—even as the species’ overall numbers have been in decline since the late 1990s. “This suggests to us that the decline of milkweed that’s been seen across North America seems to be influencing the production of butterflies across the entire breeding range,” he says. And so when it comes to taking action on conservation and habitat restoration, “Canada certainly has a stake in this and a responsibility.”

The Canadian government did publish a monarch management plan in 2016. Section 65 of SARA requires the federal government to prepare management plans for species of special concern. As well, a trilateral working group for the monarch was formed in 2014 with representatives from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. That effort got a further boost last year when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. president Barack Obama and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto signed the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership Action Plan. It includes a set of pledges about protecting monarch habitat—both milkweed and native nectar flowers, which adult monarch butterflies need for food energy—and sharing scientific research.

But according to Flockhart, there’s little in Canada’s management plan that is going to do anything to help the monarch. “If you read the document, it doesn’t say what they’re going to do or where they’re going to do it,” he says. “If you’re going to have a plan, you need to have actions that you’re going to take, you need to indicate when you’re going to do that and, ideally, you’d need to be able to justify why you’re going to do that. And I haven’t seen anything, at least on the Canadian side, that speaks to that.”

By contrast, Flockhart adds, “there’s been quite a bit of action in the United States. They’ve mobilized a large number of scientists to try to identify knowledge gaps and they’re developing tools on how they’re going to preserve this species and other pollinators.”

Monarchs and milkweed. It’s no coincidence that less of one means less of the other.

If there’s any positive to this story, says CWF’s Callaghan, it’s that we know what measures need to be taken.

Working with farmers is one step—“We have to find a way to support our farmers with tools that aren’t as destructive as glyphosate,” she says—but that’s not going to deliver a quick fix.

According to Callaghan, an immediate option to achieve rapid, large-scale change is to target municipal and provincial roadways, hydro lines, pipeline corridors and railway corridors. “The vegetation on all of those linear features needs to be maintained, and there are budgets for them. Now we need to incorporate planning and action that would keep the native nectar and host milkweed plants on the ground for monarchs and other pollinators. There is a business case to be made that there is a way to do this that would be cost-effective. And it could be done almost immediately.”

The working group that helped produce the Canadian management plan also raised these options, but without an actionable strategy in place, little has happened. “Canada needs to show some leadership, show some real performance on this,” says Callaghan. “Now.”

Both she and Flockhart also recommend looking at some of the better programs now underway in the United States. Texas, for example, published a detailed monarch and native pollinator plan last spring. “They really value wild flowers on their roadways,” says Callaghan. “They are a real leader.”

The Texas plan highlights four categories of monarch and native pollinator conservation: habitat conservation, education and outreach, research and monitoring, and partnerships. It then lays out detailed, specific actions that can be applied in each of these categories. Given the state’s location—it’s the first primary landing area outside Mexico for monarchs returning in late winter and early spring, and a final staging area for those heading south in the fall—it’s an integral piece in the conservation and restoration puzzle.

A second, grassroots-level success is the Save Our Monarchs Foundation in Minnesota. A nonprofit organization founded by a group of six families, it works with individuals selling monarch seeds and starter kits, offering instructions on how to build pollinator gardens, working with schools and so on. At the same time, Callaghan notes, the group works closely with monarch and restoration ecology experts and has partnered on large-scale projects with state-level transportation agencies and power line companies.

This isn’t to say nothing is happening in Canada. Lots of small-scale community level, private-citizen initiatives are taking shape. Likewise, many regional and national environmental organizations are promoting awareness, mobilizing support and lobbying governments for more aggressive action. Citizen science groups on both sides of the border are also encouraging individuals to track and report sightings of monarchs, to help build population datasets that support scientific research. Callaghan also urges anyone who cares about this issue to contact their elected representatives to urge large-scale restoration efforts and, if they’re able, to donate money or time to habitat-restoration projects. Finally, people can work on making their own backyards and gardens welcoming for monarchs and other pollinators. “Every bit helps,” says Callaghan.

For his part, Flockhart is hopeful the government will begin to move faster on larger-scale efforts in response to the COSEWIC status change. “I know that there is interest from the federal government,” he says. “Obviously, they need to consider the species if it’s listed. I [also] think it is important to mobilize some science in Canada to ensure that the government agencies that need the data to make those decisions have it.”

He’d also like to see the same research his study did—using stable isotopes to identify natal origins—play a regular role in monitoring and restoration plans.

“If the plan is to restore the population,” says Flockhart, “these are key data to collect every winter so that we can actually track the population.” With that, scientists and policy-makers could determine in near real-time where each year’s overwintering monarchs come from and if specific restorative actions in specific places are successful. “To me, it would be a key starting point to their long-term protection.”

Originally published in Canadian Wildlife magazine, March-April 2017

Images: Brian Banks