Monarch Butterflies and Malaria Fever

In the language of medicine, symptoms of a problem or disease are often what help professionals diagnose the root cause.  If a person has malaria,  he or she will exhibit symptoms like a fever, the chills, and feeling achey.  Of course, many of us have experienced those signs and we just have the flu.  Context is also crucial: malaria is only found in certain areas of the world, and only carried by certain mosquito species.  Symptoms can point a doctor in the right direction, but a closer examination like an MRI, X-ray, or blood test usually provides the definitive proof of the problem.

So what in the world do monarchs have to do with malaria fever?

Migration map of monarch butterflies. Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

In the United States, monarch butterfly populations have plummeted from around 1 billion to 30 million in 25 years; that is a 97% decrease in population size.  Most of their food source, the milkweed plant, has been wiped out from Minnesota to Texas and all throughout the Midwest (for more info on monarch life history, check out this post and this post from a couple months ago).  Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed their plans to stop the decline of monarchs.

Just as a fever is a symptom of a larger problem, so might be the precipitous fall of Monarch populations.  What is the root issue?  Sometimes a reasonable conclusion can be reached by analyzing all the symptoms together, rather than thinking of each as a separate problem. No single symptom (the fever, the chills, the aches) points definitively to one cause; but taken together with the context, a doctor should seriously consider a diagnosis of malaria.  A blood work test can confirm that diagnosis and lead to proper treatment.

What if monarch population obliteration is just one of several symptoms caused by a larger problem?  If this is true, a proper diagnosis is crucial to a successful treatment–in this case, saving the butterflies from possible extinction.  Let’s collect the other symptoms: as previously mentioned, the loss of milkweed plants.  What has caused their decline?  As it turns out, many places where milkweeds once thrived are now gone: instead, we have urban sprawl, farmland sprawl, and toxic, herbicide-contaminated growing conditions.  Milkweeds are simply gone.

Greater Prairie Chicken former (grey) and current (purple) range. Map from Montana State Field guide.

Since the majority of milkweed species grow best in open areas like savannas and prairies, perhaps other prairie-associated species are declining.  Indeed, this is the case: 16 of 17 indicator grassland bird species are declining rapidly, as of the 2014 State of the Birds report, the most comprehensive national bird assessment ever conducted.  Birds like the Eastern Meadowlark and Greater Prairie Chicken are disappearing just as the monarch is.

But, where habitat is maintained, species thrive.

“Because the ‘state of the birds’ mirrors the state of their habitats, our national wildlife refuges, national parks, national seashores, and other public lands are critical safe havens for many of these species—especially in the face of climate change—one of the biggest challenges to habitat conservation for all species in the 21st century,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.  

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) knows the value of habitat, and their new plans include $2 million in funding to go towards milkweed planting in federal and state lands in an attempt to create 200,000 acres of monarch habitat.  They also plan on providing milkweed seeds to as many people as possible, encouraging them to plant them in gardens, on patios, and roadsides.  In case you want to visualize 200,000 acres of land, find Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin on the monarch migration map (it’s the tiny blue speck center-right in the state); that lake is 138,000 acres in size, so not much smaller than the amount of habitat USFWS wants to create.

Red on the map indicates population decline greater than 1.5% per year.

If monarch decline is the fever, and the loss of prairie bird species are the chills, then perhaps the tell-tale itchy mosquito bite welt is habitat loss.  Four percent of the United State’s tallgrass prairie is left.  In Iowa, only 0.1% of what used to be 85% prairie coverage remains.  Prairies and their associated ecosystems are virtually gone.  Are we surprised that most species associated with grasslands are going, going, gone?

Loss of monarchs and their food source, loss of grasslands and the birds that depend on them, and lack of habitat: these are the symptoms.  What is the disease?  What parasite must we fight off?

The monarch butterfly’s round trip to and from Mexico takes it past a killing field of agriculture. But farmers aren’t entirely to blame for the insect’s decline, said Dan Ashe, director of Fish and Wildlife. “We’ve all been responsible. We are the consumers of agricultural products. I eat corn. American farmers are not the enemy. Can they be part of the solution? Yes,” Ashe said.

It’s not about this wonderful, mystical creature,” Ashe said. “It’s about us.”

It IS about us.  That’s the problem, the diagnosis: we are only concerned about us.  Our land use choices, specifically industrial production of corn and soybeans, leaves little to no habitat available for anything else (not to mention the herbicides used, which kill off “weeds” nearby to the fields).   Most certainly farmers and consumers must be part of the solution.

While the USFWS works on restoring federal and state land, we should recognize the potential for the private landowner to take part.  Chip Taylor, professor of insect ecology at University of Kansas, “insists the best antidote to big agriculture is small-scale gardens of native plants, which provide refuges for pollinator species such as monarchs in urban and rural backyards. “Seventy per cent of plants rely on insect pollination,” he says. “We’re losing sight of how everything is connected.””

By working to correct the disease, we will address all the associated symptoms–that’s what Taylor means when he says “everything is connected.”  If we plant native prairie plants, there will be habitat for insects, birds, and butterflies.  When there’s insects, there’s more pollination, more food for birds, and more diversity.  That’s the good news: conservation and restoration actually work.  But we have to get our hands into the dirt and care for God’s creation.

Here’s a good starting point resource: Create Habitat for Monarchs.

But we also probably need to do something broader, at the level of society, if we are going to reverse the effects of our selfishness.  And honestly, I’m not sure what the next step should be.  What ideas do you have, and do you have a success story of restoration to share?