The number of Eastern monarch butterflies spending the winter in Mexico has more than doubled, pleasing groups seeking to restore habitat for the iconic insect.

The amount of habitat occupied by the monarchs increased to 6.05 hectares, a 144 percent jump from the previous winter’s 2.48 hectares and the largest total since the winter of 2006-07. Researchers have found no reliable way to count the actual butterflies, so they correlate the acreage with population numbers.

Those same experts, however, said that weather conditions in 2018 were perfect for monarchs to breed and reproduce in Texas and throughout the Midwest.

“We had exceptionally good weather this year,” said Wayne Fredericks, a soybean farmer in Osage, Iowa, and a member of the boards of directors of the Iowa Soybean Association and American Soybean Association.

David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation, also credited the weather and cautioned, “we shouldn’t be overly optimistic” about the progress. But he added that it’s good to “celebrate a little bit of positivity” because it helps motivate people to restore more habitat by planting milkweed, the monarch’s food source.

“We get burned out on bad news,” Mizejewski said.

David Mizejewski

Dave Mizejewski, National Wildlife Federation

He, Fredericks and other monarch advocates said much more needs to be done, however, in order to create or restore enough habitat to get the monarch out of danger. Environmental groups have petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the butterfly as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. FWS plans to decide in June whether to propose the butterfly for federal protection.

“While an increase is better than a decrease, the overall quarter-century trend in the monarch population is still one of steep decline,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at Center for Food Safety and one of the groups seeking an ESA listing.

The American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, other farm and environmental groups, and crop protection companies are involved with the Monarch Collaborative, which has submitted recommendations to USDA on monarch conservation.

Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, where he is an ecology professor, had predicted the upsurge in monarch numbers nearly a year ago. He said the numbers were larger than he anticipated, but warned, “Don’t expect this to happen again.”

More habitat is still being lost to development — about 2 million acres per year — than is being restored, Taylor added. The monarch’s population has fallen about 90 percent from two decades ago.

Mizejewski, Fredericks and Taylor all said farmers, ranchers and other landowners need to become more involved in restoring habitat.

Wayne Fredericks

Wayne Fredericks, Iowa Soybean Association

“We recognize the good numbers but still want to put more habitat on the ground,” Fredericks said. Interest from farmers “goes in spurts,” he said, as when a new conservation practice to restore habitat for pollinators was introduced for the Conservation Reserve Program in 2014. “We put 400,000 acres on the ground at the drop of a hat,” he said.

The increase of the cap on CRP acres to 27 million acres in the latest farm bill will likely provide more opportunities for conservation, Fredericks said, adding, “There are opportunities to engage with farmers. The sustainable message in our food supply isn’t going to go away.”

Farmers and ranchers can easily plant habitat in marginally productive areas so they do not have to sacrifice profits, Taylor said, adding that 20 million acres is needed to produce an additional 1.4 billion stems of milkweed, about double the number that now exist. A scientific paper published in 2017 estimated that number would be needed to restore monarchs to 6 hectares of their overwintering habitat in an average weather year.

Mizejewski cited a number of programs promoted by NWF — including the planting of backyard habitat — that encourage homeowners to tailor their landscape for monarchs and other species. More than 300 mayors across the country have signed a “monarch pledge,” he added. Taylor added that a monarch Waystation program Monarch Watch started in 2005 now has more than 22,000 registered sites.

Mizejewski said the good news, temporary though it may be, about the Eastern monarch should not completely overshadow the bad news about Western monarchs, whose population fell 86 percent from 2017 to 2018.

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