Oddsmakers give the Minnesota Vikings about a five percent chance of winning the Super Bowl in 2018. That’s the same odds as a monarch egg laid in the wild has of making it to adulthood.
How many of these adult monarchs will eventually wing their way to the wintering grounds in Mexico is not known. But we’re learning, thanks to citizen scientists like those at the Lac qui Parle State Park.
For the most part on their own time, park staff and other volunteers have been catching and tagging monarchs on their migration south for three years now. The work helps scientists monitor the annual migration, which is in peril.
And well aware of how few eggs actually produce adult monarchs, these volunteers are giving them a boost too. In late summer they begin collecting eggs and rearing them in containers before releasing them to join their wild brethren on the migration south.
It’s all for a love of witnessing this display of beauty every autumn. “The monarch itself isn’t in danger of becoming extinct, but the phenomena of the migration is,’’ said Terri Dinesen, manager of the Lac qui Parle, Big Stone and Upper Sioux Agency State Parks.
Dinesen spoke as she and Christine Kleven, Lac qui Parle State Park worker, hosted a program last Sunday to discuss the monarch’s plight. The participants joined to catch and tag monarchs as part of this national, citizen-science effort.
They also released the 135th monarch raised this season by the park volunteers.
Monarch numbers in North America have declined by more than 80 percent since 1990, according to the Xeres Society. The decline is attributed largely to the loss of habitat and in particular, the milkweed that is the only food source for monarch caterpillars. We’ve steadily lost conservation lands that hold milkweed and the nectar producing plants that feed the adults. And, the use of herbicides on crops has reduced the milkweed that once sprouted amidst crops and along field edges.
Monarchs face plenty of other challenges too, from natural predators to nasty storms that can kill them by the hundreds of thousands.
A tiny, protozoan parasite known as OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) harms monarchs too. It’s a natural menace, but becoming a bigger threat as habitat disappears. The parasitic spore is found on 70 percent of the monarchs in Florida, where the butterflies are concentrated on limited food sources. In the Midwest, about 8 percent carry the parasite.
The volunteers at Lac qui Parle are helping us track this disease. Every monarch they catch, tag and release is first dabbed with a sticky tape that picks up the spores. The tapes are sent to a laboratory in Kansas for analysis by an organization known as Monarch Health.
Last year, 11 of the 650 monarchs caught and tagged at Lac qui Parle carried the parasite, three of them with heavy infestations, according to Dinesen.
There are three main monarch populations in North America; one west of the Rockies; one in the southeast U.S.; and the main population east of the Rockies in the U.S. and into Canada.
The central population overwinters in areas west of Mexico City. It’s here that the population decline has been severe. It reached a low point in the winter of 2013-14, but is showing signs of slowly rebounding.
The monarchs now fluttering south are the Super Bowl contenders in the annual migration. They are born to fly, according to Dinesen. The monarchs that emerge from chrysalis after mid-August fly to the overwintering grounds. Those that make it will congregate in any of 13 different areas and blanket the forest in orange through the winter.
In mid-March, these same monarchs will begin the northward migration and lay eggs in northern Mexico and Texas. The next generation-which will only live about three to five weeks- will continue the northward migration to summer grounds. The entire migration is a four-generation journey.
Last year, the volunteers at Lac qui Parle tagged 500 monarchs on their way to Mexico. We know that three of them made it to the wintering grounds, according to Dinesen.
We know this because residents in the wintering areas are paid to look for dead butterflies and return any tags that can be found to an organization known as Monarch Watch. Each tag carries its own identification number, so scientists know where each has been tagged.
And that’s how Dinesen, Kleven and other volunteers are spending their evenings as the migration takes place in this area. Armed with nets and record keeping gear, they stalk the prairies in and around the park in the early evenings catching monarchs, tagging them and often, whispering a word of encouragement as they release them on their way.