Monarch survival may hinge on planting milkweed 

The Colusa County Master Gardeners teamed up with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Saturday to get people hooked on saving Monarch butterflies.

“I love monarchs,” said Park Ranger Lora Haller, at a workshop at the Colusa Refuge on Saturday. “It’s been a huge thing for me over the years. For me, it started as a kid.”

While most adults like Haller grew up seeing an abundance of monarchs in yards, gardens, and parks everywhere, most kids probably won’t see but a few in their lifetime.

“Most of us know something is going on and it’s not good,” Haller said. “Their numbers are decreasing.” 

Statistics on western monarch populations show the wintering monarch population has gone from 1.2 million in 1997 to about 28,000. 

“It’s a huge decline,” she said. “It’s down 99.4 percent since the 1980s. For every 160 monarchs then there is only one today.” 

While monarchs are found just about everywhere in the U.S., their overall populations, particularly in the west, have dropped significantly, largely due to the loss of its only breeding habitat: milkweed. Other causes include drought, severe coastal weather that disrupts wintering populations, and the use of insecticides, such as those used for mosquito abatement. 

“There is not just one thing,” Haller said. “It’s a combination.” 

Monarch butterfly caterpillars develop only on milkweed, which historically grew in abundance throughout the Central Valley. Much of the high-quality habitat of milkweed and wildflowers that provide nectar to adult butterflies has been lost as grasslands and rangelands become developed or are converted to agriculture.

That is why the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the UCCE Master Gardeners of Colusa County have been working together the past few years to create new sources of milkweed. 

Together, they inspire locals to plant milkweed in their yards and gardens, which they discussed at length during Saturday’s workshop. 

About 25 people attended the annual event, several taking young milkweed starts to plant at home. 

Jean Franklin, of Colusa, has been planting milkweed in her yard as monarch habitat for about 15 years, and propagates seeds for others to plant. 

Franklin said she started out planting tropical milkweed, but then added the more common narrow leaf milkweed that is more native to this region. 

“Now I have both of those,” Franklin said. “My goal is to get as many varieties as I can.” 

Franklin said that in addition to milkweed in her yard, she has the perennials growing in pots, so when she does get caterpillars, although less frequently than before, she brings them inside so her family can watch their magical transformation into chrysalides, from which they emerge up to 21 days later as beautiful winged creatures. 

“My kids get to watch the whole process,” she said. “We get to watch them emerge and then the boys release them. They get to watch the whole cycle. It happened to me when I was five and my brother did that. It is what started my path into entomology, and so I shared that with my kids.” 

In a separate effort to boost monarch populations, the California Wildlife Conservation in August awarded $505,000 to the Environmental Defense Fund for a cooperative project with two private landowners in Colusa and Yolo counties to plant 325 acres of milkweed in two maturing pecan orchards – one a 7-year-old orchard located north of Colusa. 

The habitat sites will be planted with a multi-benefit species mix that optimizes benefits for monarchs, native pollinators, ecological pest control, soil health, and potential carbon sequestration. The species mix will include native milkweed to support monarch breeding, and native nectar plants to support monarchs and other native pollinators. 

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ goal is to plant 50,000 acres of monarch-friendly breeding and migratory habitat in California’s Central Valley by 2029, state officials said. ■