Look into the pale blue Texas sky this fall, and you may be fortunate enough to see a group of Monarch butterflies, known as a kaleidoscope, filling the sky. The Monarch, designated the Texas state butterfly in 1995, takes a remarkable 3,000-mile journey every year, leaving their fall perch in locations as far north as Canada to head as far south as Mexico. For lucky Texans, these easily recognizable butterflies with an ornate black, orange and white pattern can be seen flying overhead as they journey to their summer vacation down south.
A Texas icon, Monarchs are often bred in schools and used in ceremonies such as memorial events and even weddings. Unfortunately, the U.S. population of Monarchs today rests at 34 million, a stark contrast to the one billion in 1995. The Monarch Wrangler program founded by former first lady Laura Bush’s environmental group, Texan by Nature, aims to foster awareness among Texans. The nonprofit partners with state and federal agencies, academia and non-government organizations to improve habitat for the Monarch and other pollinator species. The Monarch’s endangerment represents an important problem facing the continent and its health.
The Monarch butterfly, known to some as the king of the butterflies because of its unique migration pattern, is the most familiar North American butterfly, and serves as the state butterfly to Texas as well as Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Vermont and West Virginia. The Monarch was even nominated in 1990 as the national insect, though the legislation didn’t pass. In 2009, Monarchs were even transported to and bred at the International Space Station.
The Monarchs’ migration is a complex journey that encompasses two distinct patterns. Monarchs have two principal populations: one that rests east of the Rocky Mountains, and the other that winters west of the Rockies. Both migrate into California and farther south beginning in August, with smaller populations in the Midwest and North Texas migrating south a few weeks later. Texas serves as an important landmark for Monarchs. Situated between principal breeding grounds to the north and overwintering areas in Mexico, Monarchs leave the Northeast and the Upper Midwest at the end of August through October and travel 30 to 50 miles per day, making their way through Texas at the end of November.
The rationale for why the Monarch became Texas’ state butterfly remains unclear. “It’s funny,” says Erin Mills, director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston. “As much research as I’ve done about Monarchs, I haven’t found any reason why they’re the state insect of Texas and so many other states.” She credits the distinction to the large number that fly through Texas on their way to Mexico.
Anurag Agrawal, an ecology professor at Cornell University and author of the book Monarchs and Milkweed, believes the reason may be threefold. “For one, their grand migration isn’t seen in any other North American butterfly,” Agrawal says. “Second, their wings of iconic black and gold are a beautiful sight to any eye. And third, their presence in nature is quite remarkable. In contrast to other butterflies, Monarch caterpillars are out on plants and are diurnal, making them a frequent sight for many Texans.”
“What sets the Monarch apart,” Mills says, “is their unique migration. It blows people away that no one can pinpoint how Monarchs are able to find the exact same places to migrate to every year. It’s really a mystery.” Unfortunately, the phenomenon that makes the Monarch so special is on a downward trend. The biggest problem rests in their southward migration to Mexico, with Monarchs unable to find enough food due to urbanization, pesticide use and, in recent years, a major winter storm that decimated a large portion of the population. “The main theory is there’s not enough milkweed for the Monarch,” Agrawal says, “but I don’t accept that.” He explains that because the Monarch has a large distribution from Canada to Mexico, there’s always the potential for fluctuations in population. He proposes that problems could be rooted in the nectar sources they need to “sugar up” on the way to Mexico, along with habitat fragmentation and pesticide use. Pesticide use is the main theory for the Monarch’s decline. While Monarchs are present around the world, essentially all of the Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in 12 mountaintops in Mexico the size of New York City, making any pesticide use in the surrounding areas a serious threat to the U.S. population.
Efforts to preserve this Texas icon are underway. The Monarch Wrangler program was launched by Texan by Nature, after a May 2017 convention in Austin at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with over 200 participants from all over the country, many of them researchers, land insurers and corporate businesses. The program’s mission is to increase the population and foster involvement in creating habitat essential to the Monarch by planting native plants vital for the Monarch’s survival, removing invasive species and tagging or tracking Monarchs.
The goal is to increase the Monarch population by at least 50 percent by 2020. The program consists of four categories: residential, civil, landowner (which focuses on the rural landscape) and a corporate category for businesses interested in landscaping their headquarters with native plants vital for the Monarch. “Anyone can contribute,” says Monarch Wrangler interim director Matt Wagner. “It’s as simple as planting plants that Monarchs feed on in your backyard.”
As for the program’s name, Wagner says it stems from the spirit of independence and problem-solving inherent in Texas culture. The program aims to spur Texas-led conservation to benefit the economy and natural resources.