Concerns grow following “dramatic” drop in monarch population

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It’s a trend that conservationists know all too well: The number of monarchs in North America has been slowly declining over the past 15 years.But this year’s drop is even more concerning, with the orange and black butterfly population declining by more than 50% between winters 2019 and 2020.

« [It’s] a dramatic drop, ”said Rachel Stewart, program manager for Monarch Nation, a program managed by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

“Just as efforts to preserve and conserve monarch butterflies multiply and to provide habitat… it is clear that there is still a long way to go.

In 2013, the eastern population of monarch butterflies fell 95%, resulting in the smallest recorded population of the species since the mid-1990s (Michael Charles Cole / CBC)

It wasn’t always that dark; between 2018 and 2019, there was an unusual spike, which turned out to be a one-year problem.

That’s why the Monarch Nation hosted Monarch Flight Day on Saturday in communities across Canada – events that raise awareness and support the continent-wide effort to stabilize the species’ uncertain future.

Monarch Nation program manager Rachel Stewart helped organize Saturday’s event in Toronto, which took place at Tommy Thompson Park. People were encouraged to take part in various activities and spot monarchs before heading south in the coming weeks. (Michael Charles Cole / CBC)

Toronto’s flagship event took place at Tommy Thompson Park, a narrow waterfront peninsula nestled between Cherry Beach and Woodbine Beach.

The event marked one of the last occasions this season to spot a monarch in the city. Over the next few weeks, the monarchs of eastern Canada will begin their 5,000 kilometer trek south to Mexico for the winter.

Gardeners are encouraged to plant non-invasive swamp milkweed in their gardens to help monarch populations thrive. (Angelina King / CBC)

A new generation of monarchs will then return north next spring.

“They’ve never been to Canada before, so it’s pretty neat to know that they instinctively know how to get here,” said Stewart.

‘We are losing ground every year’

What is behind the decrease in butterfly numbers, said Stewart, is a general loss of habitat primarily caused by agriculture and urban development. Climate change is also responsible for the decrease in population.

Lack of habitat also means less milkweed, which is the only plant a monarch will lay eggs on and caterpillars will eat, she said.

Monarchs that travel to Canada from Mexico after winter have never been north before – they are the offspring of butterflies that traveled south and died after their migration. (Michael Charles Cole / CBC)

While there are efforts in Canada to help with planting and habitat preservation, some of the major habitat loss is occurring in the upper US Midwest, said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, an organization which follows the migration of monarchs.

“Unless we replace at least [809,000 hectares] habitat per year, we are losing ground each year, ”he said.

Chip Taylor is pictured here showing students how to hold a butterfly. Taylor is the director of Monarch Watch and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. (Monarch watch)

This trend is something Toronto Mayor John Tory is supporting in an attempt to curb.

In a proclamation signed by the Conservatives on Saturday, the city called August 22 “Day of the flight of the monarchs.”

“Pollinators in Toronto and around the world are under increasing pressure from habitat loss, climate change, invasive species and pesticides,” the proclamation reads.

“We can all play a role in protecting them. “

Monarchs migrating south gather in huge colonies to wait for winter. (Michael Charles Cole / CBC)

How can I help you?

If you would like to help, there are a couple of ways to go.

Stewart said planting milkweed was extremely effective – something that wasn’t allowed in Ontario until 2014, when the plant was taken off the province’s noxious weed list.

“There has been a realization relatively recently that milkweed is the only plant that monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on,” she said.

“If you don’t have milkweed, you don’t have monarchs. “

Monarch butterflies born in summer (before mid-August) will likely live between three and five weeks. Monarchs born later typically live for several months during the winter months in Mexico. (Monarch watch)

Alternatively, if you see a monarch butterfly or milkweed, you can submit photos online, which helps scientists track them.

Check out more images of monarchs in Mexico.

Monarchs collect water, which is used to break down fat into sugars for energy. (Monarch watch)

Monarchs seen on the ground collecting water from dew covered grass. (Monarch watch)

A tree in Mexico covered in monarchs. (Monarch watch)



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