Monarch butterfly population down 53% from last year. Here’s the swift action we need.

Last week, scientists released results from the latest count of the eastern monarch butterfly population — the main population that migrates east of the Rockies and overwinters in Mexico. The 53% drop from just last year was an unexpected and staggering outcome that left conservationists like me downcast, but ready to act.

While many of us were expecting to see some small decline, this significant drop is especially alarming because it indicates that the monarch population is below the threshold at which scientists predict the migration could collapse.

How did we get here?

The monarch butterfly population has been on a downward trajectory for decades, with annual fluctuations due to many factors such as land use changes, habitat loss, and extreme and variable weather.

This year’s population decrease is likely due to the lateness of the migration and the extreme droughts in Texas — two factors that, together, create a problem in which the butterflies are not in sync with the availability of breeding and nectar sources.

Prolonged droughts have decreased the quality of milkweed and wildflower habitat available for monarchs to breed and feed throughout their migratory range, so this problem is not unique to just this year or to Texas. Drought and other forms of extreme weather are just one way that climate change is altering many of the environmental conditions that stress an already low monarch population.

But climate change isn’t the only culprit.

The lack of milkweed and nectar sources is a consistent factor in the monarch’s decline over the years. Along the eastern monarch population’s migration path, much of the native milkweed and flowering plants have been eradicated due to land use changes and broad herbicide applications — which scientists have also linked to the population decline. The significant drop is unexpected and staggering, but not all hope is lost. Here's what can be done. Click To Tweet

What can be done?

Although we’re unable to slow some of the inevitable impacts of climate change and extreme weather, we can create conditions that help the monarch butterfly population become more resilient to these changes and fluctuations.

Farmers, ranchers and land managers across the U.S. are well positioned to help the monarch butterfly population by planting milkweed, native grasses and other wildflowers — most commonly in marginal areas that are out of production, but sometimes in novel uses like cover crops.

These practices that help monarchs also help farmers, since pollinator habitat can be paired with conservation practices like wetlands and buffers, allowing producers to simultaneously increase soil health, water quality and biodiversity.

The power of the monarch effect

By planting milkweed and other native wildflowers that are vital to the monarch’s success, we are arming these insects to overcome the other unpredictable obstacles they may face, growing the overall population and ultimately making the population more resilient.

Although the recent counts do not bode well for the monarch butterfly population, not all hope is lost. We still have a chance to turn things around for the eastern monarch and avoid the extinction of a beloved and iconic species, but we must act now.

What you can do to help monarchs

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