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Monarch butterflies are endangered worldwide: Here's what Arizonans can do to help

Southeastern Arizona has long been a hot spot to see migrating monarch butterflies, but the animals are now considered endangered internationally. Here's how you can help:

For years, Joe Billings was a local landscape artist, but lately much of his life has revolved around monarch butterflies. At his Vail, Ariz., property, Billings has created a plant pavilion lush with milkweed and nectar plants to attract species like the recently endangered butterfly.

Efforts like those Billings has undertaken are becoming more important after the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the migratory monarch butterfly as endangered last week. While the insect is not listed as endangered in the United States, there’s no shortage of opportunities for conservation work in Southeastern Arizona, which experts describe as a hot spot of monarch activity in the state.

The IUCN’s announcement differs from the status of the butterfly in the United States, which has caused some confusion, said Gail Morris, coordinator of the Southwest Monarch Study, a group focused on supporting the butterflies.

“It's an interesting subject because it caught a lot of people by surprise,” she said. “Because we’re having a difficulty in determining the difference between what they announced and what is happening here in the United States.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in December 2020 that monarchs in this country warranted the status of threatened and endangered, but they wouldn't be listed as such due to other species having greater priority.

The country’s eastern population of monarchs was roughly 384 million in 1996 but only around 60 million in 2019, according to the FWS statement. The western population decreased from about 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 in 2019.

There’s as much as a 68 percent chance that within 10 years the western monarchs will be extinct and a 99 percent likelihood of that in the next 60 years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service Species Status Assessment Report from September 2020. The eastern population has up to a 74 percent chance of extinction within 60 years.

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The eastern and western populations are often characterized by their relation to the Rocky Mountains. However, there are indications that the populations mix, Morris said.

Southeastern Arizona residents often get a glimpse of the monarch butterflies as they pass through on their way to Mexico, California or elsewhere for the winter, or fly back north toward Canada in the spring. There are several things residents can do to support the monarchs as they migrate through Arizona.

This region has some of the “richest sites” for monarchs in the state, with such sites as higher elevation grasslands near a floodplain,  said Billings, who’s tagged thousands of monarchs under the brand MonarchQuestAZ. “I think the important thing to concentrate on is just the health of the habitat,” he said.

Planting native milkweed, which female monarchs lay their eggs on, is commonly suggested, but other resources are needed for the migration, Morris said.

“But that’s not all that monarchs need; they need nectar resources,” she said. “During migration monarchs are not breeding.” These nectar providing plants include rabbitbrush, thistles and sunflowers which bloom in fall.

Every piece of monarch-friendly land adds up, something Billings is well aware of.

“Every little fragment of habitat helps, I mean, growing up here I watched pieces of land continually get scraped of vegetation,” he said. “And then that adds up, so conversely, somebody creates a nice little patch of plants in their backyard, you know that's all good.”

Some issues for the monarch are caused by development and “faulty stewardship,” Billings said, citing the overgrazing of cattle in “sensitive resource areas” exacerbated by events like wildfires. Pesticides can also harm the species.

Monarch butterflies are indicative of the landscape's overall health, Morris said. The insects are also pollinators, which help bring food to tables.

“Monarchs aren’t going to be here every day in our backyards, so we want to make it a pollinator garden that includes what monarchs would like to thrive,” Morris said. “And you know what, we don’t need to do it all at once.” Adjustments can start small such as replacing a dead plant with a pollinator-friendly plant. Other tips can be found in regional gardening guides from the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes ecosystem health.

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It’s not all doom and gloom for the monarch though. The butterfly’s migration is more at risk than the actual species, Billings said, and Morris agrees.

“The thought is that even if the migration of monarchs ended some day, which we all hope it will not, there will probably always still be some monarchs," she said. "They might just lose that ability to migrate.”

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Joe Billings

A male monarch butterfly in South Tucson that Joe Billings tagged in 2018. Billings has spent more than twelve years tagging the now internationally endangered butterflies under the brand MonarchQuestAZ.