The Des Moines Register
by Mike Klein

Credit: Susannah Rogers, USDA Forest Service

The monarch butterfly weighs a fourth of a gram, yet migrates thousands of miles every September through Iowa to overwintering grounds in Mexico.

The iconic orange-and-black butterfly marks changing seasons. Chasing it is a rite of Iowa early childhood and watching its life transformations in classrooms is a thrilling memory, as it was for two school groups this week.

But earlier in the week, a leading monarch scientist announced that the monarch may be heading closer to its death. Lincoln Brower joined three nonprofit groups in a petition of the government to save the monarch from steep population decline, saying the main cause is agricultural practices in fields — the same fields Iowa children see out their schoolroom windows.

Liz Block, a retired teacher who was conducting a volunteer monarch presentation to elementary students Wednesday, said it was hard to find monarch eggs on fewer milkweed plants this year. Then a caterpillar climbed to the top of a classroom terrarium to make its chrysalis.

“The children just rushed up to see it,” she said. “The control was gone. It just captures the kids. If you are a spiritual person, it’s a metaphor. If you are a naturalist, it’s a wonderful thing to watch.”

In Dallas County on the same day, naturalist Chris Adkins was giving a similar presentation when the shouts of a young schoolgirl girl rang out. “It’s wiggling!” Again, the children rushed to the terrarium. “In 30 seconds we watched that chrysalis split open and watched a butterfly emerge,” Adkins said. “Every kid in there was wide-eyed and slack-jawed.”

But the monarch is in trouble, says Brower, the renowned monarch researcher from Sweet Briar College. He made national news last year when his yearly monarch count in the overwintering grounds in Mexico showed a 90 percent decline in monarchs over 20 years.

At their peak, migrating monarchs covered 45 acres of Mexico wintering grounds in 1996 but only 1.7 acres last year. Anecdotal reports indicate a possible weather-related rebound this year, but the trend has been downward for two decades.

It’s why on Monday Brower joined three nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rule the monarch butterfly threatened and give it Endangered Species Act protection.

His studies have included visits to Iowa, a state that historically has been a prime territory for their birth, but now is at the center of his criticism.

He blames the decline in migration numbers on the widespread use of Roundup herbicide, used to kill milkweed but not the genetically-engineered row crops resistant to it. Milkweed is the monarch caterpillar’s only food.

Habitat has also declined in Mexico and in the U.S., where development and increased corn production to meet the demand for the biofuel industry has decreased acreage in government conservation programs.

Loss of monarchs a widespread problem

Brower calls the monarch the “canary in the cornfield,” signaling widespread problems in the insect world, which include the vital loss of pollinators, such as bees, vital to our food supply.

“What the monarch is telling us is we are up against the wall and we’d better start thinking about it hard,” he said. “The monarch is a symbol of a bigger biological problem.”

It’s why he visited the Iowa acreage of Bill and Sibylla Brown in Decatur County in mid-July. The Browns have restored 200 acres of oak savanna, prairie and wetlands on their property, where he was astounded to find nine species of milkweed.

“We understand that not everyone can do what we are doing,” Bill Brown said. “People have to make money off their land. But there has to be a balance. In Decatur County there are 20,000 acres that could be just like this.”

Other solutions include planting roadside ditches with native plants such as milkweed. Iowa has been a national leader in that effort since 1988. The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa produces seed for 1,500 acres and works with 80 Iowa counties on their roadside vegetation programs. The center has been busy producing seeds for three varieties particularly vital to monarchs — butterfly milkweed, swamp milkweed and Sullivant’s milkweed.

CHART: Monarch colonies

The common milkweed once found with abundance in row crop fields and pulled by Iowa farmers when fields were walked prior to widespread chemical spraying is not part of the seed mix near farm lands. But it is just as vital to monarchs.

Many of the monarchs later found in Mexico were produced on those common milkweeds, said center director Laura Jackson. “Who would have ever thought monarchs and milkweed would be in trouble 20 years ago,” she said.

Other organizations are urging private landowners, even folks with little backyard flower gardens, to help by planting so-called “monarch way stations” that include milkweed plants.

“We really need to have much greater buy-in from Iowa,” said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas that promotes way stations. “We have more in the eastern U.S. But Iowa is where the monarchs are produced. Iowa is very clearly fading as a monarch habitat.”

Iowa has 198 monarch way stations, versus 763 in Michigan and 316 in bordering Minnesota, he said.

Brower fears the solutions won’t be enough, so he asked the government to protect the monarchs.

If the petition is ruled “substantial” after a 90-day service review, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say, it will move to a more rigorous review and study. The process can often take years. If the monarch is ruled threatened, it can get special protection and restrictions from activities that are proven to diminish its population, and recovery plans are implemented.

A change in ag methods needed

Brower said a change in our agricultural methods is needed.

“I think industrialized chemical agriculture has reached a point of absurdity in terms of its impact,” he said.

Rick Robinson, environmental policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said the known factors in monarch decline are the loss of habitat in its Mexico overwintering grounds and unfavorable weather.

“The milkweed decline is less certain,” he said, adding that the study that blamed herbicide use was faulty because there was no control portion, so it could be other factors in crop production causing it. “The ecology of the system is too complex to blame Roundup for the decline of milkweed or monarchs.”

Adkins and other educators will continue with their own solution — reaching children and parents with the story of the colorful butterfly.

During Adkins’ monarch tagging programs with Dallas County Conservation, this year on Sept. 8, 15 and 22, he tells the story of their life cycle, a magical transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, and their uncanny navigation skills during migration.

“You are holding a miracle in your hand,” he said.

“But I’m not in Disneyland and I ain’t Walt Disney. There is a dark side. There is one place on this planet that they go in the winter in Mexico and the trees there have been reduced by 40 percent. They say, ‘Someone has got to stop those Mexicans.’ But wait a minute. Where do they spend their lives?”

He shows them a map of Iowa’s vegetation, one where more than 99 percent of the prairie has disappeared.

“As a society we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to trade miracles for monoculture,” he said.

Then Adkins has them release the monarchs with a prayer or salutation to wish them well.

“It’s just a gift to watch people’s faces as the monarchs fly away with their good wishes and good hopes,” he said.

To help

Monarch Watch’s Monarch Waystation seed kits are available for $16 and include nine varieties of nectar and monarch host plants as well as a detailed “Creating a Monarch Waystation” guide. For more information, go to or call 800-780-9986. An Iowa business that sells native seeds for plants that attract butterflies is Ion Exchange. Go to for more information.

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