A Future for Monarchs
The Miracle of Monarchs
The striking beauty of the monarch butterfly is unmistakable — but their uniqueness goes beyond the vivid orange and black wings that make them so recognizable.
These slight creatures weigh less than a dime, yet travel thousands of miles every year — 50 to 100 miles in just a day. An instinctive internal compass guides them on the same migration path as their ancestors — in spite of the fact that they have never taken the journey before. It’s nothing short of a miracle of nature.
But the butterflies that begin this majestic odyssey will never finish it. Weeks into the journey, the first generation will mate, and it’s their next generation that will continue the trek northward. The females lay their eggs on milkweed — the plant most precious to the monarch. About four days later, the caterpillars will hatch and feast on the toxic (but harmless to monarchs) leaves, storing the milkweed’s poison in their bodies.
The toxin remains in the monarch even after the caterpillar forms a chrysalis to protect itself during its two week metamorphosis, and emerges as a bright orange butterfly. The color of the monarch’s wings signals to potential predators that the monarch itself contains this poison, warning them that the butterfly tastes terrible, and ensuring the monarch’s protection.
Now adults, the butterflies continue the journey their parents started, repeating the cycle for several generations until they arrive back home.
Monarchs at Risk
Over just the last two decades, the monarch population has declined by 95 percent, bringing the butterfly dangerously close to extinction.
There are many elements contributing to this devastating loss — from climate change to deforestation. But there’s one key factor in the monarch’s demise: The loss of milkweed habitat across the United States, particularly in the Midwest.
Monarchs depend on milkweed for survival. It’s where they lay their eggs, where caterpillars first hatch and feed. The precious plant defends them from predators, with a toxin harmless to the butterflies that makes them taste terrible to any animal of prey. Without it, monarchs simply cannot survive.
But the increased use of herbicides in agriculture is drastically reducing the amount of milkweed available — and putting the monarch at risk.
And we don’t have time to wait for action. Hundreds of species are already in the pipeline for Endangered Species Act listing decisions. These protections act more like an emergency room visit than preventative care, and we need to address this devastating threat to the monarch before it’s too late.
That’s why we’re implementing an innovative solution
It’s called the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, and the idea behind it is simple: We want to make it more profitable for farmers to protect milkweed than to eliminate it, incentivizing conservation. Since farmers and ranchers manage much of the habitat appropriate for milkweed, they are in a perfect position to restore and enhance this vital habitat, creating key patches and corridors of breeding and nectaring habitats along the monarch butterfly’s great migration.
The Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange determines the value of this habitat on any given property, and enables incentive payments to be directed to priority habitat restoration and conservation sites.
We’re ensuring maximum bang for the buck — and for the butterfly
You can help along the way by planting milkweed of your own — but you need to make sure you get the right milkweed for your region of the United States. Each species of milkweed will grow best in its native area, and healthy milkweed means healthy monarchs! You can find more details on which milkweed is right for you here — just be sure to keep the plant away from pets and children, as it can be toxic.
From the Field
David Wolfe, EDF’s Director of Conservation, is traveling the country working with farmers and ranchers to guarantee a future for monarchs and protect vital habitat.
These are his stories.
For EDF members and activists, there’s widespread love for monarchs from Hawaii to Maine.
With this map, you can move around the U.S. to find stories from your own community, or a look at EDF’s work in the field.
EDF in the Field
What’s Your Monarch Butterfly Story?
Adopt a Milkweed Acre
You can help us reach our goal of 2 million acres of monarch butterfly habitat protected by adopting a milkweed acre for just $35. The more you give, the more habitat you restore.
Bring the monarch back from the brink of extinction with a tax-deductible gift today
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