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Working together to save the monarch butterfly

Environment and Climate Change (ECCC) scientists are at the forefront of an ongoing campaign to conserve the monarch butterfly. As a research scientist with ECCC’s Wildlife Research Division, Greg Mitchell is also the co-chair of the Trinational Monarch Conservation Science Partnership - a joint effort between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. ECCC is an official member of the Partnership.

“I work with the United States and Mexico to identify conservation and monitoring research priorities…one initiative that came out of this is the trinational monarch monitoring blitz,” explains Mitchell.

Every year, monarch butterflies complete one of the longest migrations in the world. They travel 4000 kilometres from breeding sites in Canada to their winter home in Mexico. Last year, Mitchell travelled to Mexico and described the experience as breathtaking.

“It was amazing to see millions of monarch butterflies hanging in the trees. I can’t put into words how incredible it is.”

Unfortunately, despite the monarch butterfly being one of the most iconic species found North America, there has been a rapid decrease in the monarch population since 1994-1995.

The Monarch remains extremely vulnerable, something that Mitchell saw firsthand in Mexico this winter. In their winter home in 2019, the entire monarch population resided in an area that was just six hectares (about the size of six Olympic track fields). With a single storm, a large portion of the monarch population could disappear.

While there was an increased number of monarchs this winter, thanks to favourable weather for breeding last spring, the monarch population remains well below historic levels.

This is where you come in!

From July 27 to August 4, the Trinational Monarch Conservation Science Partnership is helping to launch this year’s International Monarch Monitoring Blitz. This is your chance to help Mitchell and other scientists working on protecting the monarch butterfly!

Participating in the blitz is simple and can be a fun summer activity for you and your family. In Canada, Mission Monarch has more information on the initiative.

As a first step, the group is encouraging citizen scientists to find milkweed in their area. Milkweed is the sole source of food for caterpillars so it is vitally important for the survival of Monarchs. Milkweed is in nearly every Canadian province and the Mission Monarch website has a guide to help you identify various types of milkweed in your area.

Once you have found milkweed, simply verify the presence of any eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, or adult butterflies you see. Write down your observations and submit to the Mission Monarch website.

Last year’s blitz saw close to 500 participants make more than 1300 observations across North America. Citizen scientists monitored about 54,000 milkweed plants, observing 14,000 monarchs at all stages of life.

Asking citizens to provide data on monarch and milkweed distribution is important to help scientists better identify the type of conservation efforts required and ensure the monarch butterfly remains for future generations. Mitchell notes that there are large information gaps to fill, for example, the distribution and abundance of milkweed and variation in the number of eggs laid by the monarchs from year to year.

“We need help answering questions to better understand monarchs. We know a lot but there is a lot that we don’t know…for example, we need better information about milkweed because it is the only plant that monarchs breed on. The only way to do this at a scale that covers the monarch’s range is with the help of citizen scientists,” Mitchell says.

You can follow the blitz by using #MonarchBlitz on social media, or better yet, take part!

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