College of Western Idaho Assistant Professor Dusty Perkins, student Vance McFarland and others working on the college’s monarch butterfly conservation project got their scientific hopes up recently.
A contact at a butterfly-overwintering colony in Santa Cruz, Calif., thought that he’d spotted a butterfly with an Idaho tag on its wing. This would have been the first butterfly with an Idaho tag to have been positively identified in the colony (a 537-mile trip as the butterfly flies) since 2012.
McFarland raised and released butterfly B-3930, the monarch in question, and he and Perkins spent a day fielding congratulatory emails. The college posted a story about the “miracle” butterfly and sent out press releases with the good news. Then, a few days later, the California contact decided he couldn’t confirm that the butterfly he photographed really was B-3930 after all.
The news was “a little discouraging,” said Perkins. But as a scientist, he was philosophical.
“That’s the way science works. You think you know something, and things change,” he said.
“We’re still contributing to the study of monarchs, whether this tag is confirmed. And even if it is, it’s still only one bug, one data point,” Perkins said. “To understand monarch migration in the West, we will have to have many tags, a lot more returns. There’s a lot of work to do.”
McFarland is even brainstorming the possibility of developing a butterfly tag that could be monitored electronically.
“Some kind of tag where you could walk under a tree with a thousand butterflies, wave a wand and read their numbers,” Perkins said.
It’s still possible that butterfly B-3930 is safe in Santa Cruz, and it’s just that no one’s gotten close enough yet to read her tag closely enough to confirm the sighting 100 percent.
Silver lining: spotlight on a deserving program
Regardless of the whereabouts of B-3930, her story has brought attention to the flourishing monarch project at CWI.
Professors, students and volunteers are committed to making sure Idaho’s state insect — noted for its migration habit and coloration, orange and black wings emerging from a jade green, gold-seamed chrysalis — has a future.
The College of Western Idaho has worked with the monarch population since 2014, both counting monarchs and surveying milkweed and working with Washington State University to affix numbered ID tags to the wings of Idaho monarchs in hopes of tracking their migration.
A concerning drop in monarch populations inspired the CWI research. According to the annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Counts overseen by the Xerces Society along the California coast where some monarch populations spend the winter, numbers have fallen from around 1.2 million monarchs in 1997 to around 300,000 in 2015.
The reasons for butterfly declines include pesticide use, loss of habitat and showy milkweed. Butterflies lay their eggs on the plant. It’s the main food source for monarch larvae. In our area, Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge and the land along the Boise River have the healthiest stands of milkweed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether monarchs should be listed as an endangered species in 2019, said McFarland.
“I never want a species to be listed. But I know it’s going to happen.”
The threat means a push for more research now, he added.
Perkins said that the research at CWI relies on strong partnerships.
“Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge has allowed us the opportunity to conduct extensive field research over the past two years, and Dr. David James at Washington State University provided the tracking tags that allowed us to be part of this larger western Monarch migration study,” he said.
The college tagged and released more than 40 monarchs during September and October of this year, many of them collected as caterpillars and raised by student volunteers. Around 50 students have participated in the program, said Perkins.
The college’s butterfly work is one of three projects at CWI funded through the National Science Foundation. The other two projects focus on osprey populations near Cascade and McCall as well as Idaho freshwater mollusks.
More monarchs, more teaching, more public
Monarch conservation work will expand at CWI to involve the public. Perkins is developing training for K-12 teachers so they can introduce monarch mapping, milk weed seed propagation and more conservation activities into their classrooms. He’s anticipating developing monarch programs through the University of Idaho McCall Outdoor Science School and the Boise WaterShed, the city’s environmental education center.
CWI is also working with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and its efforts to tag monarchs. The college will provide students and volunteers to help. The college will also continue its association with Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge in Nampa.
Annette de Knijf, refuge manager at Deer Flat, recalled working on wetland restoration in Santa Barbara, Calif., where masses of monarchs would settle on the eucalyptus trees creating “a cathedral of butterflies which was really magical and beautiful to behold,” she said.
De Knijf described monarchs as “charismatic microfauna.”
“Many people know what a monarch butterfly is and how far it migrates, even though they may not know much about nature or wildlife in general. So the monarch can serve as an ambassador of education about the importance of insects and pollinators,” she said.
In the future, Deer Flat and CWI will offer volunteer opportunities for people interested in working locally with monarch conservation.
The big trip
CWI students collected their last monarch caterpillars of the season on Oct. 10 at Deer Flat. McFarland returned there in late October to release his final butterfly, B-3930. The weather at that time of year was cold and windy, not ideal for a butterfly release. McFarland kept B-3930 at his house for a few days, letting her sip watermelon juice for energy. He waited for a break in the weather.
“It didn’t look like that was going to happen anytime soon. I figured this is what it’s like in nature, so I just let her go,” McFarland said.
Once released, she didn’t linger.
“She was in a hurry to get somewhere,” he said.
If the butterfly made it to California, she will spend the winter there.
“Butterflies’ bodies slow down, almost like bears going into hibernation,” said McFarland.
By early spring, the butterfly will start back north, mating and laying her eggs on milkweed “somewhere between the overwintering site and here,” said McFarland. If all goes well, the eggs will hatch. They’ll go through the life cycle: egg; caterpillar; chrysalis; butterfly.
The life of a butterfly in the wild is just six to eight months. B-3930 was never destined to make it back to Deer Flat. But if she lived, her descendents most certainly will.
More about monarchs
Where do they live? Monarchs live throughout the United States, as well as in Mexico and Canada. Some migrate as many as 3,000 miles in the fall to their wintering grounds in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Mexico or to Southern California, depending on which part of the United States or Canada from which they migrate.
Where do they migrate? Three geographically distinct populations of monarchs live in North America, one each both east and west of the Rocky Mountains, and one Central America. Each of these populations has a distinct migratory pattern. Monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains will migrate to southern California for winter while monarchs that live east of the Rockies will migrate to Mexico.
How big are they? The typical monarch wing span is 3.7 to 4.1 inches. The average weight is .0095 to .026 ounces.
How long do they live? The average lifespan in the wild is 6 to 8 months.
Boy or girl? It’s all in the wings. Females have heavier black veins on their wings. Males have a small black spot, or “scent scale,” on each of their lower wings.
Source: Defenders of Wildlife
Want to keep up with monarchs in the West?
Prof. Dusty Perkins recommends the Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, overseen by Dr. David James, a professor at Washington State University.
Interested in volunteering with the monarch project at Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge? Visit the website: www.fws.gov.