Skip to main content

Millcreek Journal

Pollinator-friendly landscapes help butterflies rebound

Apr 10, 2023 05:23PM ● By Zak Sonntag

A monarch in Fairmont Park alights on a native flower. (Courtesy Rachel Taylor)

At the weight of a paperclip, the western monarch butterfly is deceptively capable.

Recognized by the stark contrast of its black and orange wings, every year the iconic pollinator makes a multi-generational, hundreds-of-miles long migration from Mexico and Southern California to as far north as Oregon, and inland throughout the Rocky Mountain West.

Some, in fact, are enroute to Utah now, and within weeks will be fluttering in from a 600-mile journey to refuel on native nectar and lay the next generation of butterflies in the leafy folds of milkweed plants throughout the Wasatch Front—from suburban backyards to roadside ditches and open public spaces.

Despite their apparent super strength, however, the monarch’s fragility is starting to show with precipitous population declines in recent decades.

“There are fluctuations in population, but the overall trend, both east and west of the Rockies, is down 80 to 90% since they started tracking them” in the 1990s, said Rachel Taylor, founder of Utah Friends of Monarchs.

“In 2020, the western count had gone from millions down to 19,114 monarchs counted,” she said, citing data from the research group Western Monarch Count.

The decline raises larger concerns as the monarch provides a gauge for the well-being of an array of pollinator species, along with the ecosystems in which they serve vital functions.

Resident conservationists like Taylor, whose popular TED Talk has begun to generate buzz with Utah leaders, are working double time to educate the public and prod policy makers to take action. 

New data gives reason to suggest that those efforts may be having an impact—and one impactful example could be in your neighbor’s backyard.

Here’s what leaders and activists are doing to turn the tide on pollinator habitats. 

Resident conservationists

Fairmont Park in Sugar House is one of the few urban areas where monarchs can be seen in significant numbers, owing to the Monarch waystation planted personally by Taylor with permission from the SLC Parks Department.

Waystations are garden habitats that cater to monarch needs, providing critical milkweed and nectar rich plants—like tubular flowers, butterfly bush and hummingbird mint—needed to sustain successive generations of butterflies.

“That waystation was so successful its first year that Salt Lake City Parks Department jumped in with both feet and dug out all sorts of grass and daylighted little streams that were feeding the pond, and planted native pollinator plants,” said Taylor, showing how resident initiatives can inspire public action.

“It has become an absolute monarch breeding habitat. This last summer, every day of August you could walk over there and see males fighting each other in the air, and hummingbirds and bees, so many bees you wouldn't believe it,” she said. 

The Monarch waystation program was started by national nonprofit Monarch Watch, which Taylor says has become vital to the monarch’s survival—and the program’s growth is a further sign of hope. 

When Taylor first registered her waystation less than a decade ago, there were around 16,000 private waystations—now that number is up to 42,000 registered, and there are likely many more partial or unaffiliated waystations across the country. 

“I believe a larger number of people have just added milkweed to their pollinators gardens to try to help, but didn’t take the time to do the official waystations. I’ll bet this number is 10 times as many as the official registered waystations,” she said.

Beyond the backyard waystation, however, Taylor says that much more is needed to save pollinator species—and it must start with a diagnosis, and getting educated about what she says are the threefold causes of pollinator loss: habitat loss, climate change and growing use of pesticides.

Utah Pollinator Program

The Utah Legislature in 2021 passed HB 224 to promote pollinator habitat.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ashlee Mathews, created a three-year pilot program with the Department of Agriculture and Food to oversee public education campaigns along with the distribution of pollinator-friendly native flowering plants.

Taylor says the Utah Pollinator Program has been successful, and in the legislatures most recent General Session the pilot program was allotted additional funding. 

Regulating pesticide use

Even as lawmakers are pitching in to bolster native habitats, some believe that public leaders should focus on regulating products that kill pollinators, like pesticides. 

The widespread use of pesticides in recent decades has vastly diminished the native plants needed for monarch survival—especially milkweed, where caterpillars hatch. 

“When products like Roundup came out in the 1980s…it just wiped out entire food supplies for the monarch, so their population really declined with the rise of those products and their availability to the general public,” Taylor said.

“All of those farm fields used to have milkweed around the borders.”

In addition to farm pesticides, pollinators are also threatened by an increasingly popular class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, a synthetic nicotine-based product that indiscriminately kills insects by disrupting their nervous systems.

James, a horticulturalist at Millcreek Gardens nursery, worries about the prevalence of neonicotinoids in commercial growing operations.

“They're using those harsher chemicals to crank stuff out. It's cheap and it works, which is why it's so prevalent, but it is a kind of a nuclear bomb option because it impacts insects indiscriminately,” he said.

This poses dangers when residents seek to create pollinator habitat with plants sourced from commercial nurseries.

“I really think that legislatures on the state and national level don't realize how crucial these insects are for not only our survival, but the rest of the ecosystem in general,” James said. “I think changes need to happen, whether that’s on a regulatory level or a social pressure level.”

Shrinking migration window

Climate change has also put downward pressure on monarch populations by sending mixed signals about when to head inland in search of milkweed, while also shrinking their window for migration and minimizing the numbers that survive the flight.

“The longer we have warmer weather the longer they stay,” said Taylor, referring to a trend toward unconventionally warm fall seasons. 

“But then it does that quick change to winter and it’s shortening the period they can fly all the way to Mexico. Climate change delays migration in the fall and speeds it up in the spring,” she said.

For James, of Millcreek Gardens, small creatures signify big things. 

“It's all tied together. You start losing aspects of it and resiliency decreases, then it starts going downhill fast,” he said. “We need to be sure we’re protecting and preserving these creatures because we are intimately tied up with them whether we know it or not.”