Saving Migratory Monarchs

monarch on milkweedAfter spending the winter in Central Mexico’s high-elevation Oyamel Fir Forest, millions of Monarch butterflies are back on the move this spring.  The insects will travel 25-30 miles a day and up to 1,500 miles, north and east toward breeding grounds stretching from coast to coast across the United States and as far north as southern Canada.

In the fall, ninety-nine percent of North America’s Monarch population makes the return trip to Mexico, migrating to a specific site in the Oyamel Fir Forest to roost for the winter.  In 1993, scientists began recording the number of Monarchs at this site; in 2014, the number of Monarch butterflies reached an all-time low.

According to scientists, the Monarch population in North America has declined by more than 80% from its average during the past two decades, and by more than 90% from its peak in the mid-1990s.  Currently, the migratory Monarch butterfly population remains very small and very vulnerable.

North America’s Monarch migration is one of the greatest natural history spectacles on Earth.  While many bird species migrate, the Monarch migration is unique in the fact that it takes place over several generations.  Butterflies flying to Mexico in the fall are the great-grandchildren of insects that departed the previous spring.  These individuals have never seen their winter habitat and how they find their way to these specific sites remains a mystery.


On their wintering grounds, the butterflies show extreme site fidelity and only utilize a small portion of available habitat.  Their winter habitat must be warm enough to prevent freezing but cool enough to prevent them from reproducing and burning up fat reserves necessary in order to migrate north in the spring.  Therefore, conservationists initially focused on protecting these Mexican forests.  Now, the threat to the Monarch stems from the U.S. side of the boarder.  Destruction of habitat across the butterflies’ breeding range is resulting in a significant decline of this truly unique species.

As a result of changing agricultural practices in the Midwest (the main Monarch migration path), host plants for Monarch larvae, milkweeds, as well as other nectar plants needed by adult Monarchs for fuel during migration, are being killed off by herbicides.  The conversion of many grasslands and rangelands in the Midwest to a monoculture of corn and soybeans has eliminated much of the Monarch habitat, and pest management on these farms destroys the remaining prairie plants needed by the Monarch (and other pollinators), making the feat of this unique, multi-generational migration and the perpetuation of this species a most difficult task.

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In 2014, President Barack Obama met with Mexico’s President and Canada’s Prime Minister to create a three-nation working group aimed at generating a strategy to protect not only Monarch butterflies but also bees and other pollinators.  There is also a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, many non-governmental groups, including the Pacolet Area Conservancy (thanks to a grant from Loti Woods),  are encouraging their members, partners, and area residents to restore milkweed and native nectar-plant habitat for Monarchs.  The need is critical.  According to one source, “one million acres of milkweed must be planted annually to keep pace with new losses…it will require this to be one of the largest habitat-restoration programs ever attempted in the world; but it can be done.”

The Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) will be working with area schools, clubs, groups, and citizens to raise awareness about the Monarch butterfly, its habitat loss, and restoration efforts.  In the meantime, area residents are urged to plant milkweed, the host plant for the larval stage of the Monarch butterfly.  But, the milkweed must be native to our region and pesticide-free!  In addition to planting native milkweed, people are encouraged to plant native nectar plants which will entice the butterflies to the milkweed and provide them with energy to complete their life cycle.


Click here to download a list of milkweed native to Polk County, NC

Click here for a checklist of butterflies of Polk County

Click here for a list of recommended plants for butterflies

Click here to download the US Forest Service’s Conservation Management of Monarch Butterflies booklet

Click here for a brochure on creating a Monarch waystation

Click here to download a booklet about the Monarch Butterfly, produced by the US Forest Service

Click here for a brochure about Monarch Butterflies and butterflies native to the southeast

Click here to download a booklet about Selecting Plants for Pollinators of the Southeastern Mixed Forest Province

Click here to download the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s “Butterflies in Your Backyard” booklet

Click here to download the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s “Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants” booklet

Click here to read about “Obama’s Plan to Save the Monarch Butterflies’ Epic Migration”

Click here to register your site with Butterfly Highway

Click here to register your site with Monarch Watch

Local native plant nurseries:

Southern Heritage Nursery Blue Ridge, SC

Red Root Native Nursery, Asheville, NC

Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, Leicester, NC

Plants-A-Plenty Forest City, NC

Online, pesticide-free seed sources:

Sow True Seed (Asheville)

Monarch Watch Milkweed Market

Xerces Society – Milkweed Seed Finder


Thanks to the grant from Loti Woods, PAC has created three Certified Monarch Gardens in Polk County!

The first garden was planted at the PAC protected Norman Wilder Forest on May 6, 2015, in an area that had previously been covered by the non-native and invasive Kudzu!  Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the PAC Kudzu Warriors, who have been working diligently to manually remove Kudzu from the site, there was an area that was perfect for restoration!  And, what better way to restore an area that was covered in Kudzu than by creating a butterfly garden filled with native plants?!  The PAC Education Committee was responsible for planting this garden.

P1110317Thanks to Carole Bartol, Edith Castello, Liz Dicey, Nadine Naujoks, Marie King, and Judith Gosser, and PAC’s Pam Torlina for planting this great habitat!

Then, on June 16th, 2015, PAC Volunteers met at the Polk County Library to create another Certified Monarch Garden/butterfly garden habitat at the Polk County Library!

P1080439_fThanks to Edith Castello, Sue Mullen, Ford Smith, and Vince Castello for planting the Monarch Waystation at the Polk County Library! (photo by Ford Smith)

Also on June 16th, 2015, PAC volunteers completed the planting of a butterfly garden in the courtyard next to the PAC office!  This spectacular butterfly habitat caters to the Monarch butterfly, but also many other native species.   The design  of the garden was created by landscape architect, Mark Byington.  Thanks to Mark, Loti, and MANY wonderful volunteers, PAC was able to transform the formerly overgrown, lackluster courtyard next to the office building into a beautiful butterfly garden!  We hope that this garden can not only provide habitat for butterflies, but also be a model for others to follow.

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The garden is doing so well that we have even had reproductive activity!


A Monarch butterfly getting nectar from Purple Coneflower.


A Monarch caterpillar!P1110711_9-18-15A Monarch chrysalis!

gulf fritillary

9-24-15A Gulf Fritillary that JUST emerged from its pupa!

Thank you to all of the wonderful volunteers, Ford Smith, Lois Torlina, Steve and Marie King, Loti Woods, Carole Bartol, Dibbit Lamb, Vard Henry, Glenn Brady, Mark Byington, Liz Dicey and her grandson, Jacob, Carol McCall, and PAC’s Pam Torlina for helping to make the PAC court yard project a reality!

The grant from Loti Woods also allowed PAC to distribute Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants to be planted in Monarch/butterfly habitats at the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center (FENCE) and the Anne Elizabeth Suratt Nature Center at Walnut Creek Preserve.

We also made and distributed over 300 Monarch Waystation seed packets, containing seeds of plants native to Polk County, free to the community!

Seed packet

Check out PAC’s “Resources” page for more information on native plants, planting for butterflies, and more!


PAC receives Certificate of Appreciation

for the creation of a Monarch Waystation at Norman Wilder Forest!

Waystation certificate

At the Polk County Commissioners meeting on December 7, 2015, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (along with three others) received a Certificate of Recognition (Beautification Award) for the Native Plant/Butterfly Gardens that we created at the Polk County Library and the PAC office!

We are so grateful for this recognition from the county! These projects would not have been possible without the generosity of Loti Woods, who provided a grant for the projects, and the wonderful volunteers that have helped create and continue to maintain the gardens! Thank you!

beautification award

(more information to come!)