LOS LUNAS, N.M. — Every year, millions of tourists fly from
central Mexico into the U.S., first stopping in the deep American South and then
continuing northward even into parts of southern Canada. How all of this is done
without passports, customs agents or airplanes?
This is the annual journey made by monarch butterflies, one
of the best-known and most beloved butterflies in North America.
The fact that the annual migration of these distinctive
black and orange butterflies spans three countries and thousands of miles makes
it an important and prolific pollinator over this large area.
At the end of the summer, the butterflies begin their return
travels in Canada and the northern U.S. and can travel as much as 50 miles a day
on their southward trek toward Mexico.
But this majestic butterfly is coming under increasing
threat for many reasons, including the decline of resting areas the butterflies
use, commonly called “way stations,” during their long pilgrimage across the
The monarch butterfly population is in danger because they
cannot survive without milkweed. Monarch caterpillars eat the plants and
butterflies lay their eggs in the milkweed.
Scientists estimate that 33 million monarchs remain — more
than a 90 percent drop across North America.
The loss of the milkweed plants contributes to the reduced
number of monarchs recorded in California and Mexico. Additionally, more
development, agricultural intensity and mowing of roadsides also has caused the
plants to decline.
In order to help the monarch breeding habitat,
conservationists recommend planting native milkweed species.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is partnering
with the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization, to work on a three-year
project with funds provided by a Conservation Innovation Grant to increase the
availability of milkweed seed where it had not been typically available for
habitat restoration. To date, this project already has produced more than 35
million milkweed seeds.
NRCS agronomist David Dreesen from the Plant Materials
Center works in Los Lunas to grow several types of milkweed to see how they can
harvest the seed efficiently.
“We are evaluating three species to determine how well they
will produce seed in our climate and with our calcareous soils and alkaline
irrigation water,” Dreesen said. “In addition, we need to determine whether it
is economically feasible to grow milkweed seed.”
The successful partnership between NRCS and the Xerces
Society has resulted in the planting of more than 120,000 acres of habitat for
monarchs and other pollinators so far.
“Another big goal is to increase the availability of the
native milkweed seeds and make them less expensive to purchase,” said Brianna
Borders, plant ecologist at the Xerces Society. “NRCS is leading the effort to
provide conservation practices that can be used to improve pollinator habitat.”