The Plight of the Monarch Butterfly
Native milkweed plant could save the Monarch
By Amelia Blades Steward // Courtesy photos from Environmental Concern Inc.
Monarch butterflies can travel between 50 and 100 miles a day, and it can take up to two months to complete their seasonal journey to forgiving climates. Environmental Concern Inc. (EC) in St. Michaels, Maryland has shared this and many other butterfly facts in the hopes to help preserve the “near threatened” species.
The group is a local nonprofit raising awareness about the importance of improving water quality and increasing natural habitat for native species. Butterflies count among their top concerns.
In 2004, 550 million Monarchs completed their annual two-month winter migration from Canada to Mexico. In 2013, only 33 million arrived at their overwintering grounds — a 94 percent decrease over nine years. Suzanne Pittenger-Slear, President of Environmental Concern is on a mission to share the message that habitat loss is one of the major reasons for the Monarch butterfly’s decline. Over the last 20 years, Pittenger-Slear has developed a real appreciation for the importance of native plant habitat.
Pittenger-Slear and her husband Gene moved to Cambridge in 1991. “We were looking for an affordable place close to the water. We fell in love with the city of Cambridge and the Choptank River,” she comments.
“We were fascinated as we watched the many working Skipjacks leaving the city harbor at dawn, and the thousands of ducks diving for food along the shorelines of the river during the winter migration. We never anticipated the dramatic changes that would take place over the next decade.”
EC president, Suzanne Pittenger-Slear, and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge manager, Marcia Pradines, celebrate World Wetlands Day on February 2nd.
Living shoreline created by EC at the headwaters of San Domingo Creek, protecting the St. Michaels Nature Trail; cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) improves water quality and provides important marsh habitat for fish, birds and crabs.
Eroded Bank on the Miles River: existing conditions before Environmental Concern created a Living Shoreline.
Pittenger-Slear joined the Dorchester Garden Club to meet some of the local plant enthusiasts, contribute to the Club’s work in the community, and to increase her knowledge about local plant species. She was introduced by a Garden Club friend to Ed Garbisch, founder of Environmental Concern. Soon after, she joined Environmental Concern as editor of their peer-reviewed publication, The Wetland Journal.
“As I learned about the many opportunities to raise awareness about the importance of wetland habitat, I wanted to devote more time to the non-profit’s mission, and to share this knowledge with the community,” she recalls. “Both Gene and I made the commitment to continue EC’s legacy — to dedicate our time and talent to the non-profit. We both agreed that this was our opportunity to make a difference and to leave the earth a better place than we found it.”
In 2001, Pittenger-Slear was elected President and CEO of Environmental Concern and Gene was elected Vice President. When the Garbisch’s retired from the nonprofit, Suzanne and Gene continued to expand EC’s restoration projects, native plant propagation, and outreach programs. They committed to creating career paths for environmental scientists interested in wetland restoration.
In 2015, Pittenger-Slear was invited to join the U.S. Delegation in San Diego for the 20th meeting of the U.S./Canada/Mexico Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Conservation and Management. Her focus at the meeting was on ecosystem conservation and the loss of habitats that has resulted in a 90 percent reduction of the Monarch population over the past few decades.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seed pods, collected in EC’s pollinator garden, before seeds were separated from the floss.
Construction and development, over-spraying agriculture fields, and more severe storms were causing the loss of Monarch habitat. The U.S. proposed a new program at the meeting which would help increase habitat for Monarchs by increasing the number of milkweed plants grown and planted in the migratory paths of the Monarch.
“Milkweed grows in the ditches and on the fringes of agriculture fields,” she said.
“Monarch butterflies only lay eggs on milkweed plants, and it’s the only plant that the Monarch caterpillar eats. If milkweed habitat disappears, Monarch butterflies will disappear. When I found out that the Monarch butterfly was a ‘near threatened’ species, I realized that EC needed to get this information out to the public.”
Environmental Concern has been growing milkweed plants in its nursery for decades. Expanding education programs that raise awareness about the importance of milkweed habitat was a natural extension of its outreach initiatives. Pittenger-Slear adds, “We have been collecting seeds from our campus, and from plants grown in our nursery and used in EC projects, since our founding. As the demand for native plants increases, EC’s seed inventory must increase to meet the demand.”
Suzanne and Gene checking germination of switchgrass (Panicum Virgatum) seeds sown in plug trays in EC’s large glass greenhouse.
She presented the idea of starting a community native seed collection program to EC’s staff in 2015 after returning from the Trilateral meeting. The idea turned into a reality when EC founded the Mid-Atlantic Monarch Initiative© (MAMI) and introduced the Seed Stewards for Monarchs Program to the public in May 2018. The goal of the program is to increase milkweed seed inventory in order to grow more milkweed, engaging both individuals and organizations to help them accomplish the program goals.
Today, over 235 Seed Stewards across the state have signed up to become volunteers, receiving free swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) or butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds to start a Monarch butterfly habitat, and a welcome bag filled with milkweed tools, tips, and tags. Stewards collaborate with each other and with EC by sharing helpful hints about plant propagation and seed harvesting through email and social media, as well as in-person. The volunteers share their seeds with EC to help increase seed inventory and milkweed habitat.
Suzanne explains, “Milkweed seed harvesting is challenging. The pods must be collected before they burst. If they are collected too soon, the seeds may not be mature, or be viable.”
Environmental Concern has also been working with the Monarch Ultra Run team founders and other Global Partners to raise awareness and interest in the Monarch butterfly and habitat conservation. The relay run started in Peterborough, Ontario and continued through the United States to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico following the path of the migrating Monarch. A companion Mini Monarch Ultra Run/Walk program, held for local school-age children between September and November during the Monarch’s migration, coincides with the Monarch Ultra Run and models the run in the schoolyard.
Students at Sudlersville Elementary School participated in their own Mini Monarch Ultra Run/Walk while following the progress of the adult ultra runners traveling through North America.
This past fall, 300 students at Sudlersville Elementary School participated in their own Mini Monarch Ultra Run/Walk while following the progress of the adult ultra runners traveling through North America, including EC’s own Vice President of Restoration Jessica Lister, who ran the relay in Mexico. They followed the midwest Monarch migration and recreated that route in their schoolyards with students either running or walking a route they created with their teachers. Through their schoolyard habitats, students also learn about the Monarch lifecycle and the importance of milkweed plants to the Monarch’s survival.
“The Mini Monarch Ultra Run/Walk program provides a unique opportunity to expand the students’ connection with nature and the Monarch butterfly’s challenging journey — plus, it’s just a lot of fun for the students and their teachers,” Pittenger-Slear comments.
Butterfly milkweed plant ready for delivery to a Seed Steward’s garden.
“We would like to expand the Mini Monarch Ultra Run/Walk program to other counties on the Shore, as well as our Seed Stewards for Monarchs program. This past year was the best year ever for the butterfly milkweed plant on the Shore and we want to keep increasing those numbers with the hope that we will see an increase in the number of Monarchs migrating through our area.”
For further information about the Mid-Atlantic Monarch Initiative©, visit www.wetland.org/MAMI or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact Environmental Concern, visit wetland.org or call 410-745-9620 or follow them on Facebook: EnvironmentalConcernInc; Instagram: @envconcern; or Twitter: @EnvConcern.
“Save the Monarchs” pollinator garden created by Autumn, Katie, Madison and Emilee from Girl Scout Troop 1308, along the Rails to Trails in Easton.
The Marsh Builder
Environmental Concern was established in 1972 by Dr. Edgar Garbisch, known by many as the “Marsh Builder.” He founded the organization because 50 percent of the nation’s wetlands, along with the species that depend on the wetlands for their survival, were disappearing. Dr. Garbisch and a number of his colleagues developed the propagation protocol for over 100 native plant species. EC became the first Native Wetland Plant Nursery in the U.S. Today, EC is committed to improving water quality and creating, restoring, and conserving wetlands, living shorelines, and other natural habitats through education and outreach, propagation of native plant species, and professional design and installation.
Fun Facts About the Monarch Butterfly and Its Habitat
The orange of a Monarch butterfly’s wings is a warning color, identifying itself to predators that the butterfly will taste bad or may be toxic.
Monarch butterflies are not able to fly if their body temperature is less than 86 degrees so they will sit in the sun or “shiver” their wings to warm up.
Butterfly gardens provide habitat for caterpillars and adult butterflies by offering suitable shelter and food sources throughout their life stages.
Native plants provide additional benefits because they are adapted to local soil and climate conditions. They also create habitat for the variety of wildlife that migrates to or lives in the Chesapeake Bay region.