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Chip Taylor, one of America's leading Monarch butterfly experts and activists, visited Tupper Lake over the weekend. Photo:  Brian Mann
Chip Taylor, one of America's leading Monarch butterfly experts and activists, visited Tupper Lake over the weekend. Photo: Brian Mann

Monarch butterfly population plummets

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This summer, scientists and naturalists say the population of Monarch butterflies here in the North Country, Vermont and Canada is down sharply.

The great migration of Monarch butterflies from Mexico to our part of the world has faced a lot of threats over the years, everything from habitat loss to climate change.

But researchers say the latest fear is that new farm herbicides and roadside mowing techniques could be wiping out stands of milkweed -- a plant that monarchs need in order to reproduce.

Over the weekend, one of the country's top butterfly experts, Chip Taylor, visited the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. He sat down with Brian Mann.

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Brian Mann: Let me just ask you first to give us the big picture. In terms of the decline and the pressure on monarchs, where are we at?

Chip Taylor: The monarchs are down, they're really down. They're lower than we've ever seen them before—but they will be back—let's make that clear. Monarchs are not going extinct immediately, or the monarch migration is not going to decline, you know, in the next two years to vanishingly nothing. It's just not going to happen that way. The monarchs will come back, but, right now we're at a low point.

BPM: Is there a concern that when you get a species like this—you get them down to such a small number—that the stresses can be more volatile or risky?

CT: The smaller the population gets, the riskier it becomes. Even if they come back next year, they're not going to come back in big numbers; they're going to come back in fairly modest numbers. The next year, and hopefully, if we have really good conditions the following year, they'll come back in even better numbers. But it's going to take two of three years for this population to come back in at this point.

BPM: What is the larger trend line? People notice year-to-year variation, and you guys certainly measure year-to-year variation. But if you were to look at the numbers we had say in 1990 and compared the numbers in 2010, is there any measurable trend line there, or is staying pretty steady?

Milkweeds were very common in corn and soy bean fields prior to the use of this particular [herbicide] technology.
CT: No, no, no. We're never going to see the butterflies we saw in the 1990s. It's clear if you look at the population trends over time, this population is declining. And the reason it's declining is the loss of habitat, primarily loss of habitat in the Midwest. We've lost something like 170 million acres of habitat. And that sorts out to lot of habitat lost due to development, that's not number one, but number two—which is really the big one—is the development of Roundup-ready corn and soybeans. That's really the big thing that has turned this population around and sent it plummeting downward.

Roundup-ready corn and soybeans, these are crops that have been genetically modified so that they're tolerant of the application of Roundup, and therefore these people can plant the plants, the weeds come up and them they spray the Roundup. The plants, the corn and the soybeans, are immune to the Roundup because they're tolerant of it, but weeds are not and the weeds are killed.

It's a very simple way to get rid of the weeds, and the unfortunate thing is that milkweeds were very common in corn and soybean fields prior to the use of this technology.

BPM: What have your conversations with the agriculture industry and with the regulators who oversee America's ag industry—when you go to them and say, "Look, I understand why this is more efficient; I understand why these Roundup-ready crops make sense, but this is what's happening, this is what's going on." What kind of response do you get?

CT: There hasn't been much dialogue along these lines and there hasn't been much response. We've talked about all these things that have been happening—there's so many things happening right now that are having a strange impact on wildlife out there. You've got all these insecticides that are really controversial, and you've got these GMO crops all over the world that are very controversial. These pollinators monarch butterflies are just a fly speck on all this conversation. So there isn't a lot of dialogue on this right now, except that what we are beginning to do is get the ear of more and more farmers about setting aside part of their land for pollinators. And that's good; that's what we need to move forward to. But by and large, this is not in the national dialogue among the farmers and the naturalists, and it should be. We're moving in that direction, but it's slow.

Monarch larva feed on milkweed, which grows in abundance along North Country roadsides. Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_Feeding_Down_3008px.jpg">Derek Ramsey</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Monarch larva feed on milkweed, which grows in abundance along North Country roadsides. Photo: Derek Ramsey, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
BPM: There's talk up here about altering mowing patterns to protect milkweed stands, protecting highway margins where milkweeds grow. Is that mostly cosmetic, or can those things really make a difference in terms of providing some additional habitat for butterflies?

CT: In 2005 we created a program called Monarch Waystation Program, and the idea was to get people to repurpose their garden to create habitats for monarch butterflies, and our goal was to create 10,000 in three years. Well, it's a long way from that. We're up to about 7,000 habitats created and we know that there's probably another 10,000 that have been created out there, and it's a drop in the bucket. What we really need is about 10 million of these things around the country.

And so what we're doing now is advocating that people do things like modifying how we're maintaining our roadsides. So we're trying to lobby the various departments of transportation around the country to take a different look at how they're maintaining those highway margins, because those highway margins are a large proportion of the habitat that supports pollinators, including Monarch butterflies.

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