It’s the season for Monarch butterflies.
Chances are, you’ve seen at least one, maybe two.
But remember the days when there were hundreds?
Times are changing for these butterflies.
Generations of schoolchildren have reared monarchs in classrooms. One kindergarten class at Apple Creek Elementary School in Bismarck recently watched in wonder as two striped caterpillars transformed into two large orange-and-black adult butterflies. Students, including Boomer and Mila, are mesmerized.
“It was in the cocoon, it turned purple when it was almost ready we could see the wings,” says Boomer.
The Monarch is beautiful, showy and highly recognizable.
But the days of seeing many are numbered.
“Over the past two decades we’ve lost about 90 percent,” says Elisha Mueller, a conservation biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
The Monarch’s multigenerational migration is legendary — a journey of more than 2,000 miles from Mexico to Canada.
“It needs these resources along the entire route,” says Mueller.
But, landscapes everywhere have changed.
“North Dakota, specifically, we used to be about 85 percent native prairie in the state. We’ve gone down to 24 percent,” Mueller notes.
The caterpillars rely on milkweed plants, something we now spray for and often think of as a nuisance.
Then as a butterfly, it needs nectar plants, also disappearing along with the prairie.
“In Mexico, it needs pine forests to winter, and a lot of that area is private land. So they lost a lot of that to logging,” Mueller says.
All these factors together have pushed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether Monarch Butterflies will receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. A decision to be made sometime in 2020.
Meanwhile, even though they are far and few between, Monarchs still mean something.
“The first one was a girl, the second one was a boy,” says Boomer.
“They’re boys if they have spots on their wings,” Mila adds.
In order to save a tradition of rearing the Monarch in schools everywhere, Mueller says the state, federal government and non-profits are working hard to make sure the butterflies stay put.
There are a number of ways in which the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is working to save the habitat not just for Monarchs, but for the birds and the bees, too.
Part of Biologist Elisha Mueller’s job is to help put back the 72 percent of North Dakota prairie lost over the years.
She says biologists work with landowners to see how they might feel about integrating milkweed onto their land.
They’ve also started the Urban Pollinator Program, or UPP, two years ago. Hundreds of flowers and grasses are grown for the schools and are then planted on school grounds.
Kids learn about soil health, the benefits of milkweed and pollinator crops.
Mueller says everyone is working to reach the same goal, and the UPP program is a good start. So far, they’ve worked with 13 schools across the state.