Save our King: Monarchs of the Wilds
By Ryan Reed
The term “monarch” refers to royalty, or king, and it’s hard to argue with which Pennsylvania butterfly wears that crown. Bursting with color and ornately patterned, monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are some of the most beautiful creatures in North America.
What better organism to grab the attention of a youngster, perhaps shaping a future in natural resources? Back in the 1980s, my friend’s dad probably didn’t care much for the little aquarium stuffed full of milkweed and a few bright larvae, but these caterpillars were absolutely captivating. Watching them eat and grow, form a chrysalis, emerge, and fly away was a cycle of equal parts entertainment, sci-fi movie, and science lab.
The amazement of youth has given way to concern for their conservation. It is troubling indeed to realize their numbers have dropped from around one billion in the mid-1990s to about 35 million now, a loss of approximately 97% of their abundance (www.biologicaldiversity.org). To blame are the typical offenders– pesticides, development, and deforestation. Conversion of habitat into monocultural fields and development are the primary threats in North America, while loss of forests in Mexico pressures their overwintering range.
If we can cause their decline, it is certain we can also reverse this trend. Landowners can opt for preservation of meadow habitats that host the monarch’s favorite plant—milkweed, and gardeners can plant other native plants that serve as nectar sources.
Even folks who don’t own land can get involved in citizen science that aims to monitor and encourage monarch numbers. A great resource to find ways to help can be found at Xerces.org. If two young boys, armed only with milkweed pods and rakes could grow a successful milkweed patch circa 1983, then just about anyone can help conserve this remarkable insect.
Over a century ago, the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo. To think that humans caused the extinction of an animal that once numbered near 3 billion is astounding. Sadly, it appears the monarch is trending similarly. Their extinction would be an immeasurable loss, almost unthinkable. But conservation has come a long way since the demise of the passenger pigeon; the resurgence of our national symbol (the bald eagle) is proof. Successfully conserving the monarch may require a similar, concerted effort. If only for all the wide-eyed kids out there, we must conserve this iconic species. We must save our king.
About the Author
Ryan Reed is an Environmental Education Specialist in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry. He possesses degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries Science and Wildlife Technology, while currently pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Pollution Control. He has also worked for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and taught high school sciences for 11 years. He is especially interested in biodiversity and ecology. A lifelong hunting and fishing enthusiast, Ryan resides in Harrisburg, PA.