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Migratory Birds, Bats and Butterflies
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Reaching Across Borders to Conserve the Monarch Butterfly

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by Janet Ekstrum and Karen Oberhauser

Forest Service

This inner-city student and her class are learning conservatiion through building and maintaining a butterfly garden.

Janet Kudell-Ekstrum is a district biologist at the Rapid River/Manistique district, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan; Karen Oberhauser is an associate professor of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN.

A tree shimmering with butterflies is a wonder to behold. Each year, monarch butterflies make a 2,000-mile trip from the central plains of Canada and the United States to overwinter on trees in central Mexico. How a butterfly as light as a paper clip can make the epic journey is not completely clear; its ability, year after year, to leave an area from Maine to Minnesota and to arrive, generations later, at the same few spots in central Mexico remains a mystery.

The oyamel fir forests in Mexico’s Sierra Madre provide ideal overwintering habitat. The monarchs cluster on individual trees, surrounded by forests that serve as both umbrellas, sheltering from downpours, and blankets, protecting from freezing temperatures. Whereas the monarch’s normal lifespan is 4 to 6 weeks, the overwintering butterflies can survive for 7 to 8 months, their metabolism slowed by cool mountain air. In spring, they fly north, mating and laying eggs on milkweed plants. The new generation emerges from emerald-green chrysalids and continues northward to recolonize southern Canada and the northeastern quarter of the United States, where they continue to breed throughout the summer. Adults emerging in late August and September strike southward again on the same journey as their great-great grandparents.

MonarchLive: A Distance Learning Adventure

One of nature’s miracles, the monarch butterfly is as light as a paper clip, yet generations of these butterflies endure an arduous journey each year, traveling from their winter habitats in Mexico and the Caribbean to the United States and Canada, then back again. Along the way, the butterflies play a vital ecological role as pollinators, as well as indicators of healthy lands. Alarmingly, however, monarch habitat is rapidly disappearing. Forest Service International Programs is working with partners to save the butterfly, partly by spreading the news about its wonder—and its plight. In September 2008, Forest Service International Programs and Conservation Education, the Prince Williams School Network in Virginia, and other partners launched MonarchLIVE: A Distance Learning Adventure, an electronic interactive field trip for students, educators, and communities. The program connected classrooms across Canada, Mexico, the United States, and other countries through the Internet, trailing the monarch migration in real time and showcasing related research and conservation efforts. Highlights included a look at winter habitat in Mexico, butterfly gardens in Chicago, and summer behavior in Minnesota. For more on MonarchLIVE as well as archived and upcoming broadcasts, go to

Migrating monarchs need flowering plants for a continuous supply of nectar. They also need milkweed, the only plant their larvae will eat. In the United States, prairies and savannas have given way to monocultures of corn and soybeans on the central plains, with few remaining patches of wildflowers. Others have been converted to urban use or overrun by invasive weeds, and herbicides, as well as pesticides, have taken a toll. Habitat has dwindled accordingly for monarchs and other organisms that share their biological needs.

Such organisms provide a key ecosystem service: pollination. The Forest Service has been working with partners to recover their habitat, planting native wildflowers on national forest land at 16 sites across the Upper Midwest. At such sites, visitors can learn how to support pollinators; even a small backyard garden can attract breeding and migrating butterflies. The Forest Service International Programs is planning partnerships with schools, nonprofit organizations, and other agencies to conserve and restore pollinator habitat wherever possible. Working with partners in Michigan, for example, International Programs launched volunteer “citizen science” programs to monitor monarch migration and breeding on national forest land, providing researchers with much-needed data. In spring 2008, the Hiawatha National Forest hosted a monarch monitoring and habitat restoration workshop, piloting a program that will be repeated elsewhere across North America.

On an even broader scale, International Programs has been key to developing the North American Monarch Conservation Plan. The plan provides a framework for local and regional conservation activities to protect monarch habitats. One outcome is a handbook that groups can use to develop monitoring programs similar to the one on the Hiawatha National Forest. International Programs is also working with partners to conserve habitat around the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico, and providing seed money to support the newly formed Monarch Joint Venture. The venture is a collaborative effort to coordinate actions throughout the United States to implement the North American Monarch Conservation Plan, using science-based habitat conservation and restoration measures.

Any species as charismatic as the monarch butterfly offers teachable moments. International Programs is working with partners to establish inner-city butterfly gardens at schools in metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Houston, and St. Paul and to support associated science and educational activities. Programs such as Monarch Watch, Monarchs in the Classroom, and Journey North utilize monarchs to convey science and conservation concepts to young people. In collaboration with and support of programs like these, International Programs initiated MonarchLIVE, a remote learning project for 500,000 children in classrooms across Canada, Mexico, and the United States. MonarchLIVE will connect schoolchildren to scientists and people living and working in areas where monarchs breed, migrate, and overwinter, giving kids the opportunity to experience the incredible annual cycle of this fascinating insect.

The monarch is one of nature’s few migratory insects—and the only butterfly to make such a long two-way migration. A truly amazing creature, the monarch is well worth every effort to save. By working together across borders and boundaries, we can give future generations the opportunity to marvel at butterflies clustered on trees, year after year.


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