Monarch butterfly sightings have dropped across the Maritimes this year, including on PEI.
However, youth involved in Belfast Area Watershed Group’s ‘Who is Who in Your Back Yard’ program have been assisting the local population and international conservation efforts.
“Do you want to tag or release?” Elizabeth Carr asked her 13-year-old daughter, Zarabeth, at the watershed group headquarters last Wednesday.
Four youth were surrounded by patches of thriving swamp milkweed BAWG first planted about three years ago. It’s the only plant from which monarchs feed that is native to PEI and it has dwindled over time. Habitat loss like this is likely contributing to the butterfly species’ decline. World Wildlife Fund Canada and monarchwatch.org say habitat loss is contributing to their endangerment.
The pollinator faces imminent extirpation or complete extinction, according to multiple conservation organizations including the Committee On Endangered Species in Canada.
About 10 monarch cocoons, technically called chrysalises, were hanging from the top of a mesh cage just outside the BAWG Roseberry Pond office,.
A handful of freshly hatched monarchs rested inside on sticks and artificial habitat the group created for the tagging process.
In the end, Zarabeth tagged and released a monarch which would soon begin the first leg of a 4,000 to 5,000 km migratory path to Mexico.
Kayley Carter of Wood Islands released a tagged Monarch butterfly alongside her brother Devyn Carter and siblings Zarabeth and Jonah Carr of Hazlebrook. The tag and release was supported by the Belfast and Area Watershed Group and the PEI Wildlife Conservation Fund.
Following generations would typically return to Belfast next year. That is, if they manage to survive and pass obstacles and challenges on one of the world’s longest insect migratory paths.
BAWG has tagged 14 monarchs this year and has 10 more protected chrysalises they are waiting to tag and release.
Tracy Brown, executive director of the Bedeque Bay Environmental Management Association (BBEMA), which has been more heavily involved in monarch monitoring and tagging on PEI, is concerned.
“There were essentially no monarchs this year,” she said. “They just did not get up far enough to populate the Maritimes.”
Partner groups in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick reported no monarchs returning to their gardens.
The monarchs BAWG is protecting and tagging are among the few stragglers known to have made it to the region.
“It’s very disconcerting right now that our modern populations are so desperately low,” Ms Brown said.
There are a few factors the conservation community is contemplating as causes for the sudden decline.
It’s thought hurricanes, including Fiona, which hit just as the monarchs that would fly south were hatching and taking flight, may have contributed to approximately 20 per cent fewer butterflies arriving in Mexico compared to the year before.
“Hurricanes blow them off course and just demolish them,” Ms Brown said.
Then, as the next generation migrated north this spring, the insects ran into drought conditions in Texas. This reduced monarchs’ access to the nectar-producing plants they need.
Conservation specialists are also questioning if smoke from Canadian wildfires also prevented monarchs from landing in the region this summer.
“They’re not going to fly through that, and they will settle and breed as far as they can come from the south, so a lot of the population just didn’t get up here,” Ms Brown said.
“Our biggest question right now is because they return to where they hatch out of the chrysalis, if there was a very, very small breeding population here this summer, what will return next summer to breed?
“If we lose pollinators, we lose all the food on earth. Pretty much everything has to be pollinated,” she said. Losing any native species, to one degree or another, sooner or later can affect the natural systems that have sustained life for millennia.
One way to assist local populations is by planting milkweed and pollinator gardens with late-blooming native plants like pale purple coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Asters, and Goldenrod.
By Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Sep 13, 2023 at 04:00