The Monarchs have begun their flight south for the winter – to the center of tropical Mexico. But the numbers this year are fewer than ever before, due to decreasing food sources and other environmental pressures. Several studies estimate that 90 percent of the Monarch population have vanished in the last 20 years.
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New Jersey legislators are now looking to make New Jersey a kind of roadside pitstop for the declining populations along their 2,800-mile route, with a group of bills which would roll out the red carpet for the insects.
“Monarchs are one of our most visible and well-known butterflies and their migratory journey is captivating,” said Dale Rosselet, Audubon’s vice-president for education. “With just a little bit of understanding and planning we can make a great contribution to their survival by providing the one essential plant they need – milkweed.”
Milkweed, which is a native perennial plant that is often mowed down or cleared out by property owners – and which has significantly been reduced through use of herbicide, said insect experts. The Monarchs’ caterpillars eat the leaves, and the adult bugs eat the nectar from the bright flowers, they said.
“We have seen a decline in milkweed patches which could have far-reaching consequences for long-term population health,” said Dick Walton, director of the Monarch Monitoring Project for Audubon.
The biggest factor in the vanishing of the milkweed is due to the use of genetically-modified crops in the Farm Belt of the U.S., said Mark Garland, also of the Monarch project. Since the crops are resistant to herbicides, farmers are more apt to spray farther and wider around fields – killing traditional patches of milkweed adjoining farmland, he added.
Two of the bills would variously create programs through the state DEP which would allow groups to take on responsibilities of creating butterfly waystations and milkweed plantings for Monarchs, similar in a sense to “adopt a road” programs. Two other related bills would create integrated roadside vegetation programs in the state DOT, and allow private property owners to maintain private wildlife habitats.
All four bills are introduced, but remain before Assembly committees, according to the Legislature’s website.
In the meantime, the Monarchs are just beginning another annual trek through Cape May, a natural geographic funnel down the East Coast on the way to tropical Mexico.
With Monarch decline being less drastic along the Atlantic migration routes, New Jersey could become a safe haven for the remaining butterflies.
“Our population hasn’t been decreasing like across the rest of the continent,” said Garland. “If we can get these bills passed, we can become a reservoir to preserve the Monarchs.”