The return of the monarchs: helping the iconic butterfly

Millions of monarch butterflies are migrating from Canada and the northern United States some 3,000 miles south

October 3, 2019

min read

It happens every late summer and early fall, just as the first autumnal breezes sweep across North America, students head back to school, football season kicks off, and pumpkin-spice everything dominates.

Millions of monarch butterflies, seeking to escape the impending cold in Canada and the northern United States, start their journey some 3,000 miles toward California, Texas, and Mexico. Though small – weighing less than a gram each – they traverse the continent, weathering the landscape, variable conditions, and predators. Despite never having migrated themselves, each monarch knows the migration path its predecessors have forged and travels it to find shelter in the winter and lay eggs of the new generation, which will make their own one-way trip north in due time. It will take four generations to return to Canada – sometimes five.

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“One species we have been monitoring for a few years is the monarch butterfly,” says Betsy Daub, Conservation Director, Friends of the Mississippi River. “Once among the most abundant butterflies in North America, the species has declined precipitously in the past 20 years.”

Overall, 90% of the monarch population has fallen over the last two decades and the monarch species is nearing endangered status in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide whether to list the monarch butterfly as endangered or threatened species in December 2020 — 18 months later than the organization’s initial deadline of June 2019. 

“It’s important to save the monarch because it’s a critical pollinator for plants and it's also an iconic species,” said Wildlife Habitat Council President Margaret O’Gorman, author of the forthcoming book, “Strategic Corporate Conservation Planning: A Guide to Meaningful Engagement.” 

Such pollinators, including birds, bees, moths, butterflies, and others, are critical to ensuring healthy crops and sustainable agriculture. In fact, one-third of all agricultural output in the United States relies on pollinators, and at least 75% of all flowering plants on earth need them.

“The significant decrease is due to habitat loss and fragmentation, especially the loss of milkweed, which the monarch needs to reproduce,” O'Gorman added.

Monarchs need milkweed – both as a food source as caterpillars and as the only plant on which they lay their eggs. 

What the monarchs don’t know (although they’re quite smart) is that across the thousands of miles of terrain they are traveling, Koch employees at facilities throughout their path are planting, tending and growing milkweed and other perennial plants at Wildlife Habitat Council-certified (WHC) pollinator plots and conservation areas intended to help the monarchs survive their journey. 

“Quite a few of our facilities overlap with the eastern monarchs’ general migration path, which provides an excellent opportunity for our employees to help,” said Sid Johnson, Koch’s self-described “conservation dude,” whose official title is Process and Systems Manager for Koch Remediation and Environmental Services. “We want to make sure we are positioned to help conserve and grow their population.”

WHC-certified pollinator plots have been constructed at more than a half-dozen Koch company facilities in Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, with more planned. At Koch’s headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, alone there are three acres of pollinator plots that regularly see monarchs pass through in late August and September.

“Koch’s partnership with WHC helps to increase the amount of land being managed for ecological outcomes,” O’Gorman said. “In a fragmented landscape, small plots create stepping stone habitats that allow pollinators to complete their migrations or life cycles. Koch’s pollinator programs help to achieve various national and regional pollinator management and restoration goals. Since only 10-15% of the world’s land surface is protected, private lands provide a great opportunity for environmental programs.”

It’s a collaborative effort, especially for Koch companies along the migration path.

  • Monarch-butterfly-wisconsin

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch butterfly is from Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

  • Monarch-butterfly-wisconsin

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch butterfly is from Greenville, Wisconsin.

  • Monarch-butterfly-michigan

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch butterfly is from Detroit, Michigan.

  • Monarch-butterfly-michigan

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch butterfly is from Detroit, Michigan.

  • Monarch-butterfly-michigan

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch is from Detroit, Michigan.

  • Monarch-butterfly-michigan

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch butterfly is from Detroit, Michigan.

  • Monarch-butterfly-wichita-kansas

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch butterfly is from Wichita, Kansas.

  • Monarch-butterfly-wichita-kansas

    All the photos in this story were captured by Koch employees across the country. This monarch butterfly is from Wichita, Kansas.

“I’m working with sites one by one to have pollinator plots built and expect to have many more Koch facility sites supporting this effort,” Johnson added. “Anyone can support the monarch population with their own pollinator plot, and I’d encourage you to do so. It could be just a narrow, landscaped flowerbed or a larger plot of land."

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In addition to milkweed – a must for any monarch pollinator plot at homes, schools, parks, or other open areas – native perennial flowering plants and other vegetation provide the resources necessary for the species to sustain and grow its population. Monarchs are important pollinators of different wildflowers across North America. 

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A group of monarch butterflies photographed by a Koch employee in Detroit, Michigan. 

Up north, environmental groups Friends of the Mississippi River and Great River Greening identified the Pine Bend Bluffs Natural Area in Dakota County, Minnesota, as one of the “larger, fairly intact ecosystems” within the Mississippi River corridor two decades ago when their partnership with one Koch facility, Flint Hills Resources in Rosemount, Minnesota, began. The area is part of Flint Hills’ site and over the past two years, employee volunteers have seeded dozens of grasses and plants, including milkweed in that area. Since 2000, they have also monitored about 200 acres of land, including 90 acres alone in 2018, as part of a larger citizen science project in partnership with the University of Minnesota to help researchers learn more about the monarch and prevent its decline.

“This butterfly species is just one of dozens of butterflies and pollinators that have declined in recent decades. Undertaking efforts to increase and improve habitat for this species is a benefit for many of the others as well,” said Karen Schik, senior ecologist, Friends of the Mississippi River.

“FHR’s staff have been exceptional partners with FMR over the years, supporting the restoration of approximately 200 degraded acres of the Pine Bend property to more natural prairie, forest and savanna,” Schik added.

Over those two decades, multiple plant and animal species have been identified. Some were there before the project began, Schik said, while “others have appeared since restoration and may be correlated with the habitat improvements.” 

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The good news: the most recent migration data from the past year showed a sharp uptick in eastern monarchs that made the trek to Mexico – up 144% from the previous year. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, as many as 1.8 billion more milkweed stems are necessary to restore the monarch butterfly population in North America, so the work continues.

When next spring comes and the weather grows warmer, the new generation of monarchs will fly north, feeding on the milkweed plots and setting the stage for each successive generation to reach its destination. If the pollinator plots and ongoing habitat restoration are successful, at Koch sites and elsewhere, even more will make the journey.