Monarch Butterfly: profile of a species at risk

Photo of Monarch

About the Monarch

The Monarch is one of the best-known species of butterfly in the world. In Canada, it ranges from Alberta to Newfoundland, with extensive breeding in southern Ontario and southern Quebec. There is also a small population of Monarchs in southern British Columbia.

As a caterpillar, the Monarch is distinctively white, yellow, and black-banded. It transforms into a large, showy butterfly with orange and black wings, bordered with white spots. The larvae and caterpillar feed solely on the milkweed plant, which is the only plant on which Monarchs successfully lay their eggs.

Annual migration

Unlike most butterflies, the Monarch migrates. Each fall, Monarch butterflies from Canada travel approximately 4,000 kilometers to Mexico. This fall migration is an incredible phenomenon. Since they cannot survive the cold winters of Canada, they fly to the Oyamel Fir Forests of Central Mexico where they will live for about six months. The Monarch population in southern British Columbia migrates to coastal California.

In the spring, when the Monarch migrates back to Canada, the migration is multi-generational. This means that the Monarchs leaving Canada in the fall are not the same Monarchs that return in the spring. In some cases, it is the great-great-grandchildren of the Monarchs from the previous summer that are arriving in Canada.

Why the Monarch matters

The absence or presence of Monarchs can tell us a lot about changing environmental conditions.  Along with many other insects, it is a pollinator, helping to transfer pollen from one flowering plant to another. This fertilizes the plants so they can produce seeds and fruit. Without pollinators, many crops and wild flowers would not exist.

The Monarch is an international symbol of conservation and nature. It is part of a shared natural heritage between Canada, the US, and Mexico. In classrooms all over North America, it is used as an example to teach children about biology, metamorphosis, conservation and an appreciation for nature.

Why the Monarch needs help

North American Monarch butterfly populations have declined dramatically in recent years, causing concern for the survival of the species. The following factors play a role in the rapid decline of this species:

Degradation of overwintering habitat

Over the winter, most Monarchs live in only a few hectares of the Oyamel Fir forest in Central Mexico. This small area is vulnerable to extreme weather events, fire, diseases, and predation. This habitat has also been fragmented and destroyed by agriculture, fire, logging, and forest thinning. Mexico is working hard to reduce the level of destruction in order to conserve the Monarch.

Climate change

Changing weather due to climate change can have negative effects on the Monarch. More frequent storms may decrease the forest habitat in Mexico. In addition, an increase of cool, wet springs and summers in Canada and the United States may also reduce Monarch population growth rates.

Use of herbicides and insecticides

An increased use of herbicides in North America has been linked to a decline in milkweed, the plant which Monarchs depend on to survive. Herbicide use also causes declines in plants that provide nectar which Monarchs require for their fall migration.

Invasive plant species

The Monarch butterfly will only lay eggs on the milkweed plant, the only plant that the Monarch larvae/caterpillar will eat. However, Monarchs may mistakenly lay their eggs on Dog-strangling Vine, an invasive look-alike species in the milkweed family. Unfortunately, Monarch larvae that hatch on Dog-strangling Vine cannot survive.

What Canada is doing to help the Monarch

The leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada came together for the North American Leaders Summit in 2014 and signed an international agreement for Monarch conservation. This trinational commitment is vital to protecting Monarch populations.

We listed the Monarch butterfly as a “species of special concern” under the federal Species at Risk Act. We developed a management plan that outlines strategies and conservation measures to reduce threats to the Monarch in Canada. We work with conservation organizations, researchers, First Nations, agricultural representatives and citizen scientists to help the Monarch. We also work with the United States and Mexico to coordinate research, monitoring and habitat conservation. For example, these three countries are working towards a target of six hectares of occupied overwintering habitat in Mexico by 2020 to substantially lower the risk of extinction of the Eastern Monarch population.

The management plan has guided the following actions:

Management and conservation of important Monarch habitat

It is critical to ensure there is sufficient habitat for Monarch butterflies in Canada. We manage our federal properties and protected areas, including our National Parks and National Wildlife Areas, to provide essential habitat for migrating Monarch. Several federal government departments, provinces, and conservation partners collaborate to manage the lands to benefit Monarch.

Research and monitoring

We have directly funded research to advance our understanding of the Monarch butterfly that has focused on:

Outreach and public engagement

Canada provides outreach and education materials about the Monarch such as interpretive programming, butterfly exhibits, migration festivals and citizen science projects.

We also support Monarch outreach and public engagement including the Mission Monarch program, a network of citizen scientists across the country who help Monarchs by gathering data on Monarch and milkweed distribution and abundance to improve our understanding of Monarchs in Canada and throughout North America.

Funding programs

We have funded 74 projects since 2015 that directly benefit the Monarch and other pollinators. The Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP) for Species at Risk and the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk (AFSAR), among others, have provided funds for these projects. Projects include activities like habitat creation and restoration, education, and public outreach. They all share an overall objective of conserving Monarchs.

How you can help

Plant native milkweed or create a Monarch garden

Planting native milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants in your garden or yard contributes to natural diversity and helps create habitat for the Monarch. Milkweed is the only plant on which Monarchs will lay their eggs, as well as the only plant Monarch caterpillars will feed on. Adult Monarchs also need a variety of flowering plants to provide the nectar on which they feed. You can obtain milkweed, native plants and wildflowers from your local garden center or native plant society.

Refrain from removing milkweed in your garden or yard

It is also important to keep native milkweed levels from declining. The removal of existing milkweed can reduce habitat availability for Monarchs.

Avoid using insecticides and herbicides

Herbicides reduce milkweed and flowering plants that Monarchs rely on, while insecticides can harm or kill Monarchs. Reducing the use of insecticides and herbicides wherever possible will benefit Monarchs and many other non-pest species of plants, insects, animals and birds.

Become a citizen scientist and monitor Monarchs in your area

Programs such as Mission Monarch call on butterfly enthusiasts and citizen scientists to head outdoors in search of monarch eggs, larvae, caterpillars, and butterflies, as well as milkweed plants. You can report your sightings on the Mission Monarch website and make a valuable contribution to science and Monarch conservation.

Get involved within your community

Educational workshops, Monarch counts and blitzes, and Monarch habitat creation are just a few of the many activities you can take part in to help conserve Monarch. Reach out to local organizations or conservation authorities to see how you can help!

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