It’s an early September morning, and I’m concentrating on felling a troublesome tree. As the chainsaw rips through the trunk of the tree, I catch a movement of orange out of my peripheral vision. It’s followed by another and then another. Curious, I stop the chainsaw to investigate. My eyes catch a dozen monarch butterflies, or more, floating down from the sandstone bluff above me. They float slowly and effortlessly, taking advantage of the still air during the shift from evening to daytime thermals. I see a few more beginning to launch off the bluff, and as I turn and look downslope, I can see more descending down into the forb-rich prairie below.
My mind drifts back to a childhood experience, one of my earliest lessons on the large-scale workings of nature. Walking along the sandy shore of Lake Michigan, just out of reach of the waves, I find a dead monarch butterfly. Soon I find another, and another and before long I have collected dozens. I’m devastated, thinking that all the monarch butterflies have been wiped out! It was too much for a little nature-loving boy. I only regained comfort after a consult with my mother, where I learn that these represent only a small amount of monarch butterflies out of the millions that exist; analogous to one pail of water out of the great Lake Michigan.
The migrating monarch butterfly is in trouble. Their numbers have declined drastically over the last two decades. The monarch faces threats to their Mexico overwintering grounds from logging and mining. They face threats in the USA largely due to the widespread use of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops that facilitate vast areas of milkweed-free zones. The milkweed plant is the only species monarch caterpillars feed on. According to Monarch Watch.org September 14th blog post, the monarch’s 2016 overwintering forest area in Mexico is expected to be near the 2014 all-time low number of 1.13 hectares (2.79 acres).
Nearly five decades after my Lake Michigan childhood experience, I stand below the sandstone bluff and watch the last of the monarchs float past me. The best showing of monarchs I have seen this late summer. As a restoration practitioner, I take comfort in knowing my efforts in restoring this oak barren (savanna) is creating a connecting corridor between the prairie on the top of the bluff and the prairie in the valley floor. And in the years to come, the barren will provide many more opportunities for migrating monarchs when the ground layer fills in with host and nectar plants (food for monarch adults). But what about the monarch butterflies? Will they still be around in 5 years, 10 years?
I push back the darkness and return to what I know. The sound of the chainsaw roars through the valley.