Minnesota’s state species: Their past, present, and uncertain future

Monarch butterfly (2000)

Minnesota's state butterfly, the monarch // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota’s state butterfly, the monarch // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The case for the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, to become the official butterfly of Minnesota was championed by a group of fourth-grade students from Anderson Elementary in Mahtomedi, and was signed into law by Governor Jessie Ventura on March 31, 2000. The distinctive orange and black monarch calls Minnesota home each year from as early as May until late August and into September, when it embarks on its incredible fall migration to regions around Mexico City—a trip of some 3,000 miles.

The number of monarch butterflies that summer in the United States and winter in Mexico once numbered around 350 million. Last year, only an estimated 80 million were found in their wintering grounds. The lowest number of monarchs ever reported was in 2014, when hibernating monarchs were found in only 1.7 acres of Mexico, compared to 27.48 acres in 2003.

Leading monarch expert Karen Oberhauser says the chief culprit of this tremendous decline is a loss of habitat—namely, the loss of milkweed plants. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and rely on the plant as a main food source. Whereas milkweed once thrived in Corn Belt states, growing between agricultural row crops like corn and soybeans, the recent rise of herbicide-tolerant crops have led to higher herbicide use, which subsequently kills milkweed and other such plants. From 1990 to 2010, there was a 58-percent decline in the Midwest’s milkweed population, which correlated to an 81-percent decline in the monarch’s production over the same time period.

Major efforts have been made to educate the public on the importance of milkweed to monarchs’ survival, and to increase milkweed planting across Minnesota. The University of Minnesota’s Arboretum, for example, helped launch an initiative to distribute 100,000 milkweed seed packets across the state in 2014. And while overall downward trends exist for the monarch, Oberhauser is quick to point out that 2015 was a good year for monarchs, with colony numbers up 69 percent from the record low in 2014. But it will take continued education and conservation efforts to maintain and support continued monarch population growth.

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