A Future for Monarchs

Bringing the iconic butterfly back from the brink

The Miracle of Monarchs

Butterflies and Milkweed

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.

Read on to find out what’s putting these magnificent creatures at risk — and what we’re doing about it.

Monarchs at Risk

Caterpillar Eating Milkweed

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.

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Flying Monarch

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.

Testing the Monarch HQT at Shield Ranch

Earlier this week I was standing in a field of wildflowers on Shield Ranch less than 20 miles west of downtown Austin testing our monarch butterfly habitat quantification tool (Monarch HQT) when I heard an endangered golden-cheeked warbler sing from a nearby canyon. Shield Ranch is roughly 6,000 acres devoted to wildlife conservation and responsible cattle management, which is surrounded by the suburbs of Austin. You can literally see the rooftops of hundreds of houses from various high points on the ranch. Hearing a golden-cheeked warbler sing in that setting was yet another reminder to me of how vital working lands are to conserving at risk species like the monarch and the warbler.

Monarch HQT at Shield Ranch

What’s involved in testing the Monarch HQT? At the moment it’s fairly simple: Our team uses proven vegetation measurement techniques such as transects and quadrats to determine milkweed and nectar plant density and diversity in areas that are targeted for restoration and conservation. Put simply, we lay out a tape measure for about 75 feet (a transect) and then we place a 1 meter by 0.5 meter rectangle made of PVC (a quadrat) next to the transect at set intervals so as to sample the vegetation. The results will tell us the suitability of a particular area for monarch breeding and nectaring. This information is important in two key ways: It informs us as to the management that is needed to restore, enhance and maintain monarch habitat and it tells us how many credits a farmer or rancher has to potentially sell through the Monarch Habitat Exchange.

What’s next? Our team will be traveling to the Central Valley of California sometime in late June for further testing of the Monarch HQT. Stay tuned for the next Notes from the Field!


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.

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Adopt a Milkweed Acre

Butterflies and Milkweed

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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