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Wild About Utah: Monarch Waystations

Credit Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer

In the northeast region of Utah nestled between the Wellsville Mountains and the Bear River Range, Cache Valley and the surrounding landscapes begin to show the first signs of spring. Wildflowers emerge on the hillsides, birds return to the valley floor and various native plants produce and deliver the timely first round of regional food sources to host our diverse pollinator populations. I am eager this year to see if we will get to experience the return of the beloved monarch butterfly, an iconic long-distance migrator that has made a noticeable presence in our valley for generations. Unfortunately, with numbers critically low for the third consecutive year, their return to Utah’s summer breeding grounds remains uncertain.

Scientists have been tracking the population of western monarchs by conducting overwinter counts of individuals clustered in the California coastal regions. During the annual 2020 Thanksgiving Count, experts reported a dismal low of only 1,914 individuals. Counts from the two previous years hovered around 30,000 individuals, the threshold that was predicted to result in a crash of the western migration. With less than 1% of the historical population remaining (which use to report in the hundreds of thousands to over a million), this has become a troubling trend. The primary reasons for the decline in the population have been attributed to loss of historical habitat, increase in pesticide use and both direct/indirect impacts of climate change.

Now more than ever sanctuary habitats containing milkweed and native nectar sources play a vital role in the ultimate success of the monarch migration. Many people have chosen to contribute to this conservation movement through the establishment of Waystations. Monarch Waystations offer the promise of protected habitats with the establishment of adequate seasonal resources dispersed between overwintering sites and summer breeding grounds. The idea is the more Waystations created, the better connectivity between habitats, the more robust the migratory pathway. The added benefit of additional resource sanctuaries for critical pollinator populations which ultimately determine the success of our agricultural industry is noteworthy.

Waystations can be integrated into a variety of existing landscapes, including home gardens, business establishments, government buildings, local parks and schools. In the state of Utah, there are 59 registered Monarch Waystations. I host Waystation 26876 through Monarch Watch, #44 in the state. 5 specific criteria are needed to certify a Waystation (through 1) A designated space, minimum of 100 square feet; 2) Native milkweeds (to serve as host plants); 3) A variety of seasonal nectar sources (natives preferred); 4) A water source and: 5) Shelter. The commitment to avoid the use of pesticides is also critical for success.

Local movements and backyard organizations have become monumental in the collection and distribution of regional milkweeds and native nectar plants. If you are looking to start a Waystation of your own, that would be a good place to start. With the monarch’s recent designation as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, and their listing put on hold (as “warranted but precluded” due to lack of funding), we are in a race against time to save the migration. My backyard will continue to provide a reliable source of habitat plants for as much of Utah and it can support. As I package up another round of Showy milkweed seeds (Asclepias speciosa) destined for a Utah classroom, I remain hopeful. Our next generation of environmental stewards, under the careful guidance of passionate enthusiasts, is paving the way as they witness the plight of the monarch unfold before their very eyes.