Rotarians pledge to restore the monarch butterfly’s disappearing habitat
Seventy-five percent of the world’s plant species are dependent on pollinators, such as the monarch, to survive
Late last winter, just before the world shut down, my family flew from Minneapolis to Mexico City, then drove two hours west toward the city of Valle de Bravo. From there, we continued on to Santuario Piedra Herrada, a nature preserve situated in the forested mountains of central Mexico.
The next morning, as the sun rose behind the mountaintops, we began our hike up a mile-long trail. The air was cool, and the sky was obscured by patchy clouds. Higher up the path, we noticed the oyamel fir trees start to take on a different appearance. They looked solid. They looked so heavy that they might fall over. They looked like they had been colonized by some strange creature.
When we reached the top, we could see that in fact it wasn’t one creature that had colonized the trees, but many: Millions of orange-and-black monarch butterflies covered the branches and trunks of the now orange-tinged trees, huddling together for warmth as they have done every winter for thousands of years. When the sun emerged from behind the clouds, the insects, warmed by its rays, filled the air, and the beating of their wings sounded like a soft rain.
In a few weeks, those same butterflies would take off from these hills — Santuario Piedra Herrada is one of a handful of places where monarchs gather to spend the winter each year — and fly to Texas and other parts of the southern United States, where they would lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Those offspring would then fly north as far as Canada to lay their own eggs. After a third generation, at the end of the summer, a fourth, “super” generation, whose life span is as long as nine months (as opposed to its predecessors’ two to six weeks), would embark on a journey back to Mexico, following the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains until reaching the hills around Piedra Herrada.
No one knows how the instructions for this 6,000-mile round-trip journey — one of the longest known migrations of any insect species — pass from one generation of monarchs to the next. What we do know is that everywhere along this butterfly’s route, the habitat it needs to survive is disappearing. The plight of the monarch has made news in recent years, and from schoolchildren to scientists, people are trying to help. Chris Stein, a ranger with the National Park Service, is one of them.
Harnessing the power of Rotary
In June 2015, Stein, who was then superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, invited Marlene Gargulak, the incoming governor of Rotary District 5960 (parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin), to park headquarters to discuss the loss of vital habitat for monarchs and other pollinators.
Stein knew the power of Rotary to make things happen. Several years earlier, he had given a presentation to the Rotary Club of Stillwater Sunrise, Minnesota, that led to the district signing a memorandum of understanding with the National Park Service. The result was a “sister park” project between national parks in the upper Midwest and in Costa Rica — the summer and winter homes, respectively, of birds that migrate along the St. Croix. That idea was based on the International Peace Park conceived by Rotarians in the 1930s, which unites Glacier National Park in the United States and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada.
At his office in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, Stein gave Gargulak a presentation on the monarch migration and showed her maps detailing the habitat loss facing the butterflies at every stage along their journey. Then he asked her, “What do you think Rotarians could do?”
Gargulak’s idea was to ask clubs to improve pollinator habitat in their own communities. “Or better yet,” she said, “let’s ask all the clubs, in all the districts from Canada to Mexico, to each do a project. We can’t wait until the butterflies get to Minnesota or Wisconsin to help them. If we’re going to do the corridor, we’ve got to have everybody. We have to do a big project.”
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Average daily distance migrating monarchs travel en route to Mexico
55 degrees Fahrenheit
Temperature below which monarchs cannot fly
Life span of monarch “super generation,” eight times longer than the other generations
Less than 1%
Current population of western monarchs as compared with the historic population
Decrease in the population of monarchs over-wintering in Mexico in 2019-20 from the previous year
The science behind the project
Depending on the year, between seven and 14 colonies of monarch butterflies overwinter in Mexico. Partly because of habitat loss — caused by illegal logging in Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve; by modern agricultural practices in the United States and Canada, where corn and soybeans no longer share space with milkweed plants; by climate change; by pesticide use on farms and in residential and commercial landscapes; and by urban sprawl and other development — numbers have dropped from an estimated 682 million of the insects in 1997 to 59 million last year. The western monarch population, which migrates primarily within the state of California, has fared even worse, with 29,000 remaining, down from a population of 4.5 million in the 1980s.
“Habitat is the biggest factor we have direct influence over,” says Wendy Caldwell, executive director of the Monarch Joint Venture, a coalition of government and private groups working to save the species. “And we need it everywhere. We’re losing habitat faster than we’re able to put it back in.”
For monarchs, that habitat must include milkweed, the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat, and therefore the only plant on which the butterfly will lay eggs. In North America, there are more than 100 species of milkweed, a tough plant that can grow in many places: pastures, prairies, gardens, roadsides, and wetlands. Other native plants provide the nectar that nourishes the butterflies themselves. Ensuring that all the plants monarchs require are available where they need them will take a coordinated effort. In 2017, in a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers noted that “the eastern migratory population of monarch butterflies declined by more than 80 percent within the last two decades.” They estimated that restoring “more than 1.3 billion stems of milkweed to the Midwestern United States will require participation from all sectors of society.” That includes municipalities and other government entities, businesses, industries — and homeowners, Caldwell says. “Whatever people can do in their backyards is an important part of the solution.”
Stein, who now oversees the National Park Service’s eight National Heritage Areas in the Midwest, agrees. “No project is too small,” he says. “Someone planting one milkweed seed is good. If someone wants to go out and restore a prairie, that’s even better.”
Restoring habitat will be key to the monarch’s survival. But there are even bigger stakes. Butterflies aren’t the only pollinators in trouble: So are bees, bats, moths, and other insects. Researchers have found, for example, that native bumblebee populations in North America have declined 46 percent in recent years. And the work those pollinators do has a direct effect on our own lives.
“Seventy-five percent of the world’s plant species are dependent on pollinators to survive,” says Stein. “I ask people: Do you like to eat?” Without the help of pollinators, he says, 30 percent of the food in any grocery store would disappear.
Fortunately, the same native plants that help monarchs also help bees and other pollinators. “Monarch habitat benefits a lot of things,” says Caldwell. “Pollinator habitat is essentially about the plants and the ecosystem they support. Native plants support a higher diversity of insects, which feed the birds, which feed the other wildlife. It’s all about the ecosystem. Monarch habitat is wildlife habitat, as opposed to lawns or monoculture crops.”
As 2015-16 governor, Marlene Gargulak visited all 63 clubs in her district, speaking at each one about the pollinator crisis and asking them to sign on to a “pollinator pledge” to take action. She sent letters to the governors of all 74 districts across the eastern monarch’s territory asking them to do the same thing. The District 5960 conference that year included a sale of pollinator plants. In July 2015, Gargulak attended a meeting with former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, a resident of Minnesota, at which they discussed ways to increase pollinator habitat. The next month, she and Stillwater Rotarians Craig Leiser and Bev Driscoll met with U.S. Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota to kick off Operation Pollination, a broad effort open to anyone interested in increasing pollinator habitat. The Rotarians also helped form the St. Croix Valley Pollinator Partnership, which brought together small-business owners; a baseball team; government agencies such as the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service; and private companies, including Andersen Corp. and Xcel Energy. In 2016, the partnership received a grant of $200,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, allowing it to restore native habitat on nearly 1,000 acres of land and establish a 5-acre seed plot for milkweed and wildflowers at the St. Croix Correctional Center.
Stillwater, Minnesota, a city on the St. Croix River, signed the pollinator pledge. Across the river, the city of Hudson, Wisconsin, established a pollinator park. “The fellow who was in charge of the parks at the time said, ‘I just didn’t think it would work at all. But by gosh, the plants came up, it looks pretty, and butterflies and bees came!’ ” says 2011-12 District Governor Judy Freund, who has also worked to promote Operation Pollination beyond the district through the Environmental Sustainability Rotary Action Group.
“Anybody can participate in Operation Pollination,” says Freund, a member of the Rotary Club of Hudson Daybreak. “Community members, Rotarians, businesses, and organizations. The pollinator pledge has been signed by many organizations in addition to District 5960. And of our club’s almost 80 members, a good number have participated in planting pollinator gardens.” Some, she says, have also planted pollinator gardens at home.
At least 31 clubs in the district have carried out pollinator projects since 2015, including one in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where the city donated a plot of land for a butterfly garden and tree planting. A member of the Rotary Club of Barron County Sunrise, Bruce Goode, also hired a master gardener to design butterfly gardens in front of his Rice Lake restaurant. “We have two butterfly gardens,” Goode says. “Once you’re done planting, they just do their thing. It’s pretty much self-sustaining. It’s sort of like growing weeds, which I’m good at: You just whack them down in the fall and they grow right back in the spring.”
When Peg Duenow, of the Rotary Club of Lakeville, Minnesota, heard about Operation Pollination, she and her fellow club members decided it was something they could get behind. They approached the city of Lakeville, which located a “triangle of grass” in a park where the Rotarians could put in a pollinator garden. They applied for, and got, a district grant of $4,000.
With the district grant, along with funds from the city, a local watershed group, and nearby Rotary clubs, the Lakeville club had more than $14,000 to pay for plants, seeds, fencing, signage, and other needs. In the summer of 2016, the Rotarians went to work, preparing the site and planting the seeds for a dense patch of native plants, including wild lupine, tall blazing star, rattlesnake master, prairie onion, and butterfly weed (a type of milkweed). The city maintains the 8,000-square-foot garden, and the air is filled with bees and butterflies all summer long.
To date, much of the Operation Pollination activity has taken place within District 5960, at the northern end of the monarchs’ route. Rotarians there want to work with clubs and other entities all along the migration corridor. Stein says that National Heritage Areas are a natural partner; these public-private partnerships have a total combined area larger than the state of Texas and are run by local organizations with support from the National Park Service. Of the 55 U.S. National Heritage Areas, 36 have expressed interest in joining Operation Pollination. A dozen have already signed pollinator resolutions and are seeking partners for projects.
“Rotarians are perfect partners to sign on to the National Heritage Areas’ resolution, to sign a pollinator pledge, and to do some habitat restoration,” Stein says. “Operation Pollination can be a local project or it can be a district project. Can you imagine if each district from Canada to Mexico embraced this idea? What if 1.2 million Rotarians, in districts around the world, pledged to do work on behalf of pollinators? Wouldn’t that be something? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
• Frank Bures is a longtime contributor to Rotary magazine. He was lucky enough to travel to central Mexico to see the monarch colonies before the pandemic.
• This story originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.