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As monarch butterflies are placed on the endangered species list, here's what Kansans can do to help

 A local butterfly farmer says planting milkweed is the most important thing people can do to help monarch butterflies.
Melanie Rivera-Cortez
A local butterfly farmer says planting milkweed is the most important thing people can do to help monarch butterflies.

Conservationists say habitat loss and climate change have led to a decline in the number of monarchs over the past three decades.

The North American migrating monarch butterfly is now classified as endangered, according to global conservationists.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature cites habitat loss and climate change for the designation. Researchers have seen a downward trend of the species’ population over the past three decades.

Monarchs migrate through parts of Kansas in the fall, on their way to winter in the mountains of central Mexico. In the spring, flocks of the iconic orange-and-black insects fly north through the United States and into Canada to breed and lay their eggs.

Chip Taylor leads a Lawrence-based nonprofit called Monarch Watch. Through the University of Kansas and the Kansas Biological Survey, the program engages citizen scientists in large-scale research projects involving the tagging and tracking of migrating monarchs.

Taylor is doubtful that the species will go extinct. But he said the endangered status for migrating groups is still cause for concern and conservation practices must be prioritized.

Taylor boils down monarch conservation to two separate matters.

“If we want to have monarch butterflies in the future … we’re going to have to pay attention to the habitat issue, and we’re going to have to pay attention to climate change because either one of those two things can take this population down,” Taylor said.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that the population of monarch butterflies in North America has declined between 22% and 72% over 10 years, depending on the measurement method.

And extreme weather events have decimated vulnerable monarch populations in the past.

In the winter of 2002, while the monarchs were nestled between tree branches in a small mountainous region of Mexico, two days of rain followed by freezing temperatures caused more than 200 million of the insects to die.

“Those events are new,” Taylor said. “The events that we’ve seen … are all related to the greenhouse effect, and this is of real concern.”

Monarch butterflies have not yet been designated as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and thus have no federal protections at this time.

Ryan Malone raises monarchs and other butterfly species as a part of his butterfly farming business in Wichita, and he supports monarchs being prioritized for protection.

So will Kansans see less monarchs? Malone doesn’t think so.

He said that people and groups are becoming more educated regarding supporting the species and embracing the practice of planting milkweed nationwide. Milkweed is the only plant on which monarchs lay eggs.

“I think it’s best if nonprofits continue to do what they do and local areas manage their areas the best they can for protecting monarchs,” Malone said.

So what can the average Kansan do to support the species? Malone has a simple answer.

“Plant milkweed,” he said. “The number one thing you can do to help monarchs is to plant native milkweed.”

Copyright 2022 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Andrew Lopez