Monarch Butterfly Populations are Dwindling – Here’s How You Can Help

monarch butterfly

Majestic monarch butterflies cover the fir trees in the forests of Central Mexico every winter, but fewer of them have been calling these woods home, thanks mostly to humanity’s destruction of their natural environment. [1]


The number of monarchs have been dwindling for 2 decades, but the situation seems to have reached a tipping point this year.

Karen Oberhauser, co-chairwoman of Monarch Joint Venture, a national collaboration of 50 conservation, education and research groups, confirmed it, saying:

“The problem is real. We’re seeing much, much lower than the long-term averages.” [2]

The Roots of the Problem

Last winter was a bad one for the monarch butterflies who make their home in the forests of Central Mexico. The winged beauties had their best migration in years, but severe storms toppled many of the oyamel fir trees where insects rest and recoup their strength after their long journey from Canada. [1]

The winter of 2015-2016 saw more than 70 hectares of forest damage, the worst since the winter of 2009-2010. Experts aren’t terribly hopeful about the future; the butterflies’ overwintering grounds are expected to get slammed by even more extreme weather in the years to come, driven by climate change.

Additionally, illegal logging in the region threatens to leave the travelers with increasingly fewer places to rest their weary wings.

Omar Vidal, CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mexico, said in a report released August 23:

“Since the forests provide the microclimate needed for butterflies to survive the winter, illegal logging must be eradicated and degraded areas need to be restored.

This would help the monarch butterfly to better adapt to extreme climate events, and also provide local communities with sustainable economic alternatives.” [3]


Fortunately, according to the WWF, illegal logging has decreased significantly in the past year.

Many monarch butterflies die en route to Mexico, and apart from extreme weather like drought, man-made hazards often cut monarchs’ migration short. One study found that an estimated 500,000 monarch butterflies were killed by cars and trucks in a single week in central Illinois. [4]

The Impact of Glyphosate on Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies need milkweed to survive. Monarch caterpillars feast on milkweed, and adult butterflies lay their eggs on the plant.

But milkweed is disappearing from farmers’ fields. Since 1992, the insects have lost about 147 acres of the plant.

Read: Roundup Ravages the Butterfly Population

Industrialized agriculture, including the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMO) that can withstand herbicides like glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. Milkweed has been targeted on farm fields for years and are generally considered a nuisance. [3]

Killing even small patches of milkweed can make it harder for female monarchs to lay the maximum eggs, since more of their time winds up spent trying to find a suitable place. [4]

Past studies show that larger declines of monarch butterflies in the U.S. Midwest seem to indicate that milkweed loss is a significant part of the problem (though not the main cause), since herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops are more common in the Midwest than in regions where monarch populations are more stable, such as the U.S. Northeast and southern Canada.

Read: Monarch Colonies in the U.S. Close to Extinction due to Glyphosate

Bill Nye has even said that “we accidentally have decimated the monarch butterfly population, reduced it over the last two decades by 90 percent … We don’t want that where you are accidentally wiping out a potential pollinator species.” [5]

What can be Done About it?

Monsanto will never admit that one of its products is to blame for…well, anything. And many farmers will continue to spray Roundup on their crops, in the hopes of better yields.

However, some people are actually planting milkweed to give monarch butterflies a place to rest and breed, including Jim Paulus, of La Crosse, Wisconsin, who is cultivating a milkweed patch to serve as a monarch nursery. [6]

He says:

“I have some wooded property near Stoddard with a cluster of milkweed that I’ve let grow for the purpose of attracting monarchs. I enjoy watching wildlife, and I picked up on them. Sedum plants this time of year attract monarch butterflies.”

Paulus also persuaded the town of Shelby not to mow a 40-foot patch of milkweed along Highway 33, believing it could become a monarch magnet.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has launched a partnership with 2 private conservation groups – the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation — in a massive effort to grow milkweed to save the orange and black butterflies.

The United States is trying to reintroduce milkweed on about 1,160 square miles within 5 years with a combination of planting and designating pesticide-free areas.

How You Can Help

The cool thing about milkweed is that it blooms attractive flowers – it’s not just another ugly weed to rip out of the ground. So, if you choose to grow milkweed, it won’t be a total eyesore.

You can’t walk into Walmart and find milkweed seeds, however. You can purchase seeds online inexpensively, though, with the help of a quick Google search.

Milkweed can also be propagated from cuttings, and sometimes root divisions.

Monarch Watch offers in-depth information on growing milkweed. You don’t need a farm to grow it; you can help monarch butterflies flourish right in your home garden.


[1] The World Post

[2] Chicago Tribune

[3] Care2

[4] Mother Nature Network

[5] EcoWatch

[6] La Crosse Tribune