Flight of the Monarch by Mary Bergin, Wisconsin Trails, March/April 2010


Wisconsin Trails, Madison, WI. Flight of the Monarch, pg. 28-29. March/April 2010.

Butterfly barameter reveals much about our planet’s health

Split-rail fencing, prairie grass, benches, footpaths: Most people see little else on a half-acre patch of city-owned land in downtown Shell Lake in Washburn County. Mary Ellen Ryall, a master gardener, notices much more. She sees the natural world at work to foster the health and bolster the population of one species: the Monarch butterfly. No other butterfly in the world travels farther for its annual migration, up to 3,000 miles, typically between Canada and Mexico.

The flight literally represents the journey of a lifetime. The winged beauties rarely live more than nine months, and environmental factors threaten that lifespan. “The population appears to be declining and habitat loss is suspected as having a role in the decline,” says Monarch Watch, a nonprofit network devoted to the pretty insect. Global warming also may be a factor.

Although not an endangered species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1983 classified the Monarch’s migration as “an endangered biological phenomenon.” Ann Swengel of Baraboo, a butterfly researcher and surveyor, is among those who have documented the Monarch’s habits and vulnerabilities.

Millions of these butterflies winter in Oyamel fir forests, west of Mexico City, but increased logging threatens their well-being. Fewer trees mean less protection from weather extremes. Throughout the migratory route, pesticides contaminate the butterfly’s water and food – especially milkweed, classified in some areas as a weed that can be eradicated. The milkweed is vital to the Monarch at all stages of its life: the females lay their eggs on the underside of milkwood leaves, the caterpillars eat the plant’s leaves and the adult butterfly feeds on milkweed nectar.

So Ryall and others in Happy Tonics, a conservation group, have put together an outdoor classroom – a Monarch-friendly habitat within a restored prairie in Shell Lake. After getting the city to lift its ban on milkweed, Happy Tonics began selling milkweed seeds so that people could grow their own Monarch habitats. The efforts of the group have earned praise from Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin. “Local people took what used to be an industrial, railroad area and beautified it,” notes Charley Weeth, CSW executive director. “It was little more than sand and weeds.”

“We have created an environment of sustainability,” Ryall says. Another Monarch habitat is in the works on state-owned property on the south side of Shell Lake. “We see the big picture and this butterfly is teaching us,” she explains. “A great majority of Monarchs are near agricultural areas – poison the land with pesticides, and you poison the Monarchs.” Too much fuss about one creature? Hardly, she says, because of the web of interdependence between species.

“Biodiversity attracts lots of species including deer, ducks and an occasional bear” to the habitat, Ryall explains. “Can you imagine? Right there next to Highway 63.”

Mary Bergin is a freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin

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