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Groundbreaking effort to conserve monarch butterfly population extends across Texas state border

A nationwide agreement including partners in the energy and transportation sector is helping conserve the monarch butterfly population
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Posted at 10:32 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-26 08:19:09-04

WACO, TX — U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are calling an effort to conserve millions of acres for the monarch butterfly population in Texas and across the nation "historic" and "groundbreaking."

The Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCAA) for Energy and Transportation Lands, made in March, brings together more than 45 companies from the energy and transportation sectors and landowners, all in the effort to conserve the monarch butterfly by providing habitat for the species along right-of-way corridors.

Administered by the University of Illinois-Chicago and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a highlight of the agreement is an effort by the Texas Department of Transportation(TxDOT) in enrolling 1.238 million acres of land, including 73,038 center lane miles of highways and interstates.

"This is groundbreaking," Adam Zerrenner, a Field Supervisor with USFW's Austin Ecological Services Field Office, said. "It's a national agreement for a charismatic, incredibly loved species, especially by Texans. And Texas has probably enrolled one of the largest transportation departments in the country. That is groundbreaking and is amazing."

A spokesperson with the department saying since TxDOT joined the CCAA, the department has completed a full monitoring cycle to ensure compliance with the agreement.

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Monarch Butterfly: Fall & Spring Migrations

"We've monitored 109 sites across the state, looking out for nectar-producing plants and milkweed that provide habitat for these migratory insects to help them grow and thrive. We also continue to mow and conduct wildflower seeding across the state."

Monarchs migrate in changing seasons, with millions passing through the state of Texas in their journey to Canada and Mexico every year. A trip in which the Monarch is dependent on milkweed and other nectar source habitat to provide breeding, resting stops during the migration.

Named the Texas state insect in the mid-90s, the Monarch Butterfly population in North America is declining at an alarming rate, said USFW Monarch Outreach Specialist and Wildlife Biologist Katie Boyer.

"So monarchs have been declining since about the mid-90s, and we've been having growing concern over this decline," Boyer explained.

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I-35 corridor or along the central flyway of monarch migration, providing prime real estate for pollinator habitat creation. Since joining the CCAA, a spokesperson for TxDOT said the department has monitored 109 sites across the state, looking out for nectar-producing plants and milkweed that provide habitat for migratory insects like monarchs to thrive.

The two migratory populations of Monarchs in North America, the smaller western population located in California dropping from about 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 in 2019, according to the USFW. The larger, eastern population, measured by the area occupied, also shows an alarming population decline from the mid-90s to today.

"We measure their population by looking at the area that they occupied down in Mexico, and they're all concentrated together." "In the mid-'90s, they were occupied about 45 acres down there."

At an estimate of roughly 8.5 million monarchs per acre, the population in 1996 of 384 million has plummeted to about 60 million in 2019, according to USFW.

"This past February, it came out that they occupied about five acres down in Mexico, which is a decline from last year as well. "Not great news; it's a 26% drop from last year to this past winter."

In December, USFW announcing after a thorough assessment of the Monarch Butterfly population finds adding the Monarch to the list of endangered species is warranted but precluded on higher-priority species.

"We made what's called a warranted but precluded finding," Boyer explained. "And that essentially means we believe that listing the species is likely warranted, but we have higher priority listing activities that are ahead of them in our workload. We will review their status annually to determine whether or not that needs to be changed and at a later date, and potentially may propose them as listing as threatened or endangered."

The decline is due to a wide variety of factors, with habitat loss representing one of Boyer's primary drivers.

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The Monarch Butterfly became the Texas State insect in 1995. Employees at Westview Nursery and Landscape in Waco describing the monarch as a symbol of "hope" and "family".

"And that's both at their overwintering ground down in Mexico and also throughout their breeding range in the U.S. and even up into Canada."

Boyer said the loss in habitat is due to illegal logging at monarch winter ground, changing agriculture practices through the U.S., insecticide use, and climate change.

It's a long list of problems for the iconic Monarch, which is also why the CCAA agreement is so important, said Zerrenner, not just for today but also for the future.

"In addition to all these organizations that have signed on and enrolled as part of this agreement, TxDot being a huge participant." Zerrenner explained."This effort allows for and gives a certainty that highways will get built in the future in a way where we're working to conserve the species habitat here as the Monarch flies North and then flies back South to the Midwest and then back down to Mexico."

And it's just not participants in the CCAA that can help support Monarch conservation, Boyer stressed.

"Basically, if you build it, they will come. Boyer said. "Whether it's roof garden, a right-of-ways, on ranch land. I encourage folks to use those native milkweed plants and native nectar resources, particularly fall-blooming flowers also are important for Monarch since they come through Texas on their way down to Mexico in the fall."

Aside from helping save a species, Texans have a somewhat romantic view of or helping support pollinators that help produce our food or flowers we love. The Monarch also holds a zeal of mystery which allows spurring her determination in preserving its legacy, Boyer said.

"I think because it's one of nature big mysteries as to why this tiny insect that weighs as much as a paper clip migrates to a place they may have never been before in Mexico, in a specific habitat, and then flies northward and comes back in those spring months," she explained. "I mean, it's one of nature's biggest mysteries as far as I'm concerned. And there's really not a very good explanation for it."

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Imani Wiley dawns shows off her butterfly t-shirt and necklace as she shops shops for nectar flower plants at nursery in Waco.

"And what a great opportunity for everybody, collectively to be able to do something that's possible for a species," Zerrenner said. "A species that many of us we learned about when we were kids in elementary school or when we're scouts."

A list of plants attracting monarchs and other pollinators can be found here. To find out more general information on how you can participate in helping participate in monarch conservation, visit here.

Also, new monarch butterfly license plates are now available to motorists for purchase. The money raised through their purchases goes towards conserving monarch butterflies and other native Texas at-risk species.

You can find more information on conservation plates available and where to purchase yours here.