The monarch butterfly is an iconic species that we all have grown up with. It is the butterfly that I raised from a caterpillar to adult for a migration project in fourth grade growing up in Williamsfield, Ill.
It’s a species I have shown my 3-year-old son several times in flying through our yard and investigating milkweed at local parks. With the species being omnipresent throughout my life, it was hard to grasp that only 1,914 adult monarch butterflies were documented in their traditional overwintering sites west of the Rocky Mountains in 2020.
This data was included in a recent report that comes out every year as part of a long-term survey conducted by Xerces Society’s official Western Monarch Count.
The monarchs in North America are divided into two different populations. Those we see around here are part of the eastern group that migrates to Mexico where they overwinter.
The western population migrates to Southern California and into Baja, Mexico. The eastern inhabitants have also been in decline in the recent decades by as much as 80%, but the population in Mexico can still be estimated by acres of roosting coverage (7 acres in 2019).
These new numbers show the western monarchs are in a much more immediately grim situation, and their collapse should be a warning to us that the eastern population could be following soon. The research indicates that the most recognizable and widespread butterfly in North America may go extinct in my lifetime, and that is not something I am willing to give into right now but the possibility is boldly written by these trends.
The newest monitoring data of only 1,914 monarchs in the west is staggering. For context, at Kankakee Sands, we had a monarch roost at our bison viewing area (pictured here) that I estimated to be several thousand butterflies. As I sit here and reflect on that experience, it is incredible to me to think on that day in September, I saw more adult monarchs there than might exist this winter in the western third of the U.S.
I realize I live and work in an area that has a large agricultural community, and folks reading this are probably tired of feeling like fingers are always being pointed at them. Growing up around a farm, I completely understand. The truth is we all share the burden of species decline with not just the monarch but many others too.
In a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists call out insect decline in the age of man as a “death by a thousand cuts.”
I am sympathetic to a lot of species professionally but personally tracking the decline of this species hits harder, and I hate to imagine a world without it. Plant some milkweed in 2021 and cherish every monarch that flies by.