Museums and Students Team up to Save Monarch Butterflies in Idaho

On July 7th, 2015 our Education Specialist, Becky Hansis-O’Neill, teamed up with the Education Coordinator from the Museum of Idaho (MOI), and former Idaho Museum of Natural History

Market Lake WMA features large patches of Milkweed near water.

Market Lake WMA features large patches of Milkweed near water.

(IMNH) intern, Chloe Doucette to take students participating in MOI’s High Adventure Camp into the field to monitor Monarch butterfly larvae.

During the summer months, Monarchs migrate to Idaho to breed on Milkweed – plants that commonly grow in ditches and along roadsides.  If you have seen Milkweed growing in any of the previously mentioned places, chances are good that you saw a species known as Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciousa).  Showy Milkweed is by far the most common of the 7 species of Milkweed Native to Idaho.  Unfortunately for breeding Monarchs, Milkweed of all kinds is often misidentified as a noxious weed and is dispatched with the likes of Spotted Knapweed and Scotch Thistle.

But in places like the Market Lake Wildlife Management Area, Milkweed is allowed to flourish without the threat of being sprayed by weed control crews.  It was here that the MOI and IMNH took their students for their first taste of Citizen Science.  Yet even with acres of untouched breeding habitat available, the crew only saw a handful of adult Monarchs flying around the WMA during the course of their survey.  Data collected by Citizen Scientists in California sheds light on the reason why.

Western Monarch populations have been declining ever since their numbers have systematically recorded.

Western Monarch populations have been declining ever since their numbers have systematically recorded.

While many associate Monarch butterfly Migration with destinations in Mexico, most Western Monarchs actually overwinter in California. Since 1997, Citizen Scientists that live near overwintering sites in the Sunshine State have spent their Thanksgiving holiday counting Monarchs, and the results of their efforts reveal a concerning trend.

While Monarch butterflies show an amazing ability to rebound, their populations have declined from 1.2 Million overwintering Monarchs in 1997, to around 200,000 in 2014.  With the help of other organizations and scientists, The Xerces Society, the organizers of the Thanksgiving Monarch Count,  petitioned the United State Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) to review the conservation status of Monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in late 2014.  The USFWS is currently conducting a status review of Monarchs in the United States, and the federal government has allocated 3.2 million dollars towards their conservation. 

Most fourth graders can tell you, among other things, that Monarchs are one of Idaho’s state symbols.  They are our humble state insect.  With strong roots in agriculture, hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation, Idahoans have naturally stepped up to help with Monarch conservation.  Dozens of interested citizens, in concert with federal and state agency employees, attended a workshop in Boise this June hosted by The Monarch Joint Venture Project, The Xerces Society, and Idaho Fish and Game to learn about monitoring techniques and established research programs. 

Margie Miracle holds a newly tagged Monarch while her husband, Ken, takes a photo.

Margie Miracle holds a newly tagged Monarch while her husband, Ken, takes a photo.

Some citizens, like Idaho State University alumni Ken Miracle and his wife, Margie Miracle, have received special training and are now tagging Monarchs. Tagging Idaho Monarchs will help scientists figure out exactly where they migrate in the winter time.

Conversely, Monarchs tagged during the winter time in California can turn up in Idaho.  Recently, Idaho resident Kendra Hathaway photographed Monarch

Monarch #4130 near Twin Falls, ID. 4130 flew all the way from California.  Photo by Kendra Hathaway.

Monarch #4130 near Twin Falls, ID. 4130 flew all the way from California. Photo by Kendra Hathaway.

#4130.  4130 was tagged in the Trinity National Forest in Northern California, and he flew  439 miles to Twin Falls, Idaho to breed.

In addition to tagging programs, simply locating Milkweed patches and breeding Monarchs is critical to conserving them in Idaho.  The students that visited the Market Lake WMA with us aimed to do just that.  Upon arriving at Market Lake, students practiced counting Milkweed, measuring Milkweed height, and understanding Milkweed phenology.  After practicing basic skills, they moved up to a larger patch of Milkweed and learned how to take a sub-sample of Milkweed.  Students that were less interested in the technical aspects of collecting scientific data were tasked with finding Monarch caterpillars and eggs.  At the end of the survey, students had identified 9 caterpillars with specimens representing 3 different stages of development, and had

Larva on Milkweed.

A 5th instar Monarch larva feeds on Showy Milkweed growing at Market Lake WMA.

spotted two adult Monarch butterflies.  The data they collected was shared with The Xerxces Society, and will be some of the first current habitat data from Eastern Idaho available to scientists.

This summer marks a milestone in the conservation of Idaho’s Monarchs, as conservationists of all spots and stripes work towards improving our collective knowledge of Monarch ecology in the state.  If you would like to get involved please contact our Education Resources Center at (208)282-2195 or email our Education Specialist at hansreb3@isu.edu.  Monarch science projects are suitable for K-12 classes, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Youth Groups, and dedicated families looking to volunteer their time together.  We encourage interested groups to inquire.