One of Nature's 'Most Spectacular Events'

One of Nature’s ‘Most Spectacular Events’

Will a severe March storm or cross-border politics threaten the migration of the monarch butterfly?

Spanning four generations and three nations, the annual migration of the monarch butterfly endures as one of nature’s most captivating marvels.

“The monarch migration is an incredible phenomenon,” said Ted Burk, Ph.D., professor of biology, who has devoted much of his professional life to the study of the monarchs who live and migrate up and down the central corridor of North America. “Whether you attribute this to a Godly creator or a long evolutionary process, or maybe both, it’s one of the most spectacular events in nature.”

But in the 41 years since the modern revelation of the monarch’s winter roosting site on a wrinkle of mountainous forest in central Mexico, roughly the size of Creighton University’s campus east of 24th Street, life has been unstable at best for the butterflies and the people who have carved out a niche ecotourism economy around the monarchs.

Now, with the effects of climate change being felt all along the monarchs’ migration route and roosting zones, another threat rears up to challenge the butterflies. The people, the policymakers and the scientists who have a vested interest in the butterflies are pondering the next moves in light of two rough migrations in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, when the monarch populations were estimated at 33 million and 56 million, respectively, compared with the billion butterflies that wintered in the area in 1996-1997.

“You have three federal governmental entities involved in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, all making policy decisions and when you have a trilateral situation like that, it’s problematic,” said Adam Sundberg, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of History who spent time as a graduate student in the monarch roosting grounds in Mexico, examining the socioeconomic and historical impact of the migration and potential

effects of climate change on it. “You have scientists trying to weigh the best options and find the best models for what the climate change impact will be. And you have the people who are concerned about what the economic impact will be. It’s climatological, ecological, political and social.”

The good news is there was a decent rebound in 2015-2016, up to about 150 million butterflies, but a severe winter storm in March had a dramatic impact on the population, killing about one-third of the roosting monarchs. Burk said the weather event is one scientists come to expect every decade or so and, since the last major storm was in the winter of 2000-2001, this one was well overdue.

While the toll taken on the monarchs was significant, the butterflies still departed their wintering grounds in February with greater numbers than in the past two years. The storm’s weightier aftermath might be felt when the great-great-grandchildren of this year’s winterers return to Mexico in the fall. The storm felled several hundred trees, a problem compounded by continued illegal logging in the forest. More frequent storms of this magnitude could spell disaster for the species.

Inasmuch as people are anxious about the plight of the monarch in its winter quarters in Mexico, people in Nebraska and more widely throughout the nation can also help forge solutions, Burk said. Monarchs are widespread throughout the U.S., though not all of them migrate to Mexico. West of the Rockies, the butterflies travel the West Coast and a species of monarchs in the southeast largely migrates along the Florida peninsula. Planting milkweed for caterpillars and other cultivars like tall thistle, goldenrod, ironweed, aster, zinnia and wild bergamot for mature monarchs helps provide the insects with a food source.