Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Long Live the King!

The monarch massacre: Nearly a billion butterflies have vanished
Threatened animals like elephants, porpoises and lions grab all the headlines, but what’s happening to monarch butterflies is nothing short of a massacre. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service summed it up in just one grim statistic on Monday: Since 1990, about 970 million have vanished.

It happened as farmers and homeowners sprayed herbicides on milkweed plants, which serve as the butterflies’ nursery, food source and home. In an attempt to counter two decades of destruction, the Fish and Wildlife Service launched a partnership with two private conservation groups, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to basically grow milkweed like crazy in the hopes of saving the monarchs.

Monarch butterflies are a keystone species that once fluttered throughout the United States by the billions. They alighted from Mexico to Canada each spring on a trek that required six generations of the insect to complete. Afterward, young monarchs about the quarter of the weight of a dime, that know nothing about the flight pattern through the United States, not to mention Mexico, fly back, resting, birthing and dining on milkweed. Only about 30 million remain.
I question whether the Monarch butterfly should be considered a Keystone species. Resorting to Wikipedia for a definition that generally corresponds to the one I was taught in basic ecology umpteen years ago:
A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. Such species are described as playing a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other organisms in an ecosystem and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species in the community.
Monarchs are not important food for anything; one of the points of interest about them is that they are toxic and unpalatable to their main potential predators, birds, because of the toxins they accumulate from the milkweed their caterpillars eat. Milkweed itself is largely a weed (although there are horticultural varieties; we have one), and because it is so toxic, it has few other animals eating it. It's a bit of a closed loop. Monarchs need milkweed, but not much else needs Monarchs or Milkweed. It's not that I don't like Monarchs, but I hate sloppy over exaggeration of ecology.
Fish and Wildlife is reviewing a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to list monarch butterflies as an endangered species that requires special protection to survive. The agency is studying whether that’s necessary and also trying to do more to help restore the population.

The agency is providing $2 million for on the ground conservation projects. As part of an agreement, the federation will help raise awareness about the need for milkweed, provide seeds to anyone willing to plant it and to plant the seeds in open space — roadsides, parks, forests and patio flower boxes, to name a few places. Another $1.2 million will go to the foundation as seed money to generate a larger fundraising match from private organizations.
It might help some, but my guess it's just going to be money going out to friendly NGOs for a cost of many dollars per extra butterfly.

For what its worth, we have at least 2 species of wild Milkweed at the beach, and one horticultural variety in our garden, and despite looking frequently, I have never found a Monarch caterpillar or chrysalis. If Monarchs are limited by the amount of Milkweed to be found, you would think you could find them a little more often.

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