Growing up in Colorado Springs in the '40s, I was fascinated by butterflies. In those days before extensive suburban development, butterflies were omnipresent in gardens, in vacant lots, in tangled vegetation along Monument Creek, and in the foothills and mountains.
My best friend and I used to roam the city and surrounding countryside, nets in hand, in search of new specimens for our collections.
We didn't bother to collect the monarchs (Danaus plexippus). They, along with cabbage butterflies (Pieris rapae) and clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) were for beginning collectors — too common for sophisticated 9-year-olds like us. We prized rarer species, such as the queen (Danaus gilippus) or the viceroy (Limenitis archippus).
Sixty-five years later, monarchs and clouded sulphurs are as uncommon as queens and viceroys once were. Last summer I biked 2,000 miles on city roads and trails without seeing a single monarch. I assumed that development and habitat loss were the major culprits (not to mention my dimming eyesight). I didn't know the whole story.
If Pikes Peak is America's Mountain, then the monarch is America's Butterfly. A rich red-orange with black veining and white-spotted black borders, monarchs are large, highly visible creatures.
Colorado Springs lepidopterist F. Martin Brown, who taught for many years at Fountain Valley School, discussed monarchs at length in his 1954 book (to which I contributed), Colorado Butterflies.
"The monarch is the most famous of all wandering butterflies," he wrote. "They spend winter months in huge colonies in Florida, Texas and California. [The now-famous Mexican colonies were not discovered until 1975.] As spring moves forward, females deposit their eggs, which soon hatch and the tiny larvae grow, pupate and emerge as butterflies in the incredibly short time of three weeks."
Each fall, monarchs would congregate in "particular areas that seem to be gathering points," and head south. "So exciting these migrating swarms," Brown noted, "that notice of them appears in newspapers every year."
We've learned a lot about monarchs since 1954. We know that the migrations take six generations to complete, and we now understand that monarchs are a keystone species, an indicator of environmental health.
Colorado was never a major monarch flyway, but the summer and fall migrations were still noticeable. No more.
In the early 1990s, more than a billion monarchs made the annual migration. That number dropped to around 30 million in 2014. Absent concerted and thoughtful action by governments and individuals, the monarch will be extinct within a few years. What happened?
Industrial agriculture, suburban development, more intensive cultivation of cropland, and the promiscuous use of modern herbicides and pesticides have all contributed to the decline. The greatest damage has come from habitat destruction in the United States, where farmers and homeowners have killed off milkweed, the monarch's crucial food plant.
The monarch's plight has finally attracted the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which launched what it described as "a major new campaign aimed at saving the declining monarch butterfly" on Feb. 9. They're putting up a few million bucks for "on-the-ground conservation projects," but it's far from enough. The monarch's fate is really in the hands of farmers, homeowners, gardeners and city governments.
First, we can plant native milkweed. There are many varieties, some of which are extremely drought-resistant.
"It needs at least part sun," said lepidopterist Sarah Garrett of Westminster's Butterfly Pavilion. "But it'll grow in any soil. It's very hardy — after all, it's a weed! We sell plants at our sale in late May."
Milkweed seeds are available from several sources in Colorado. "Showy milkweed" can hit five feet, producing large pink and white flower clusters.
We can also persuade City Council to declare Colorado Springs a monarch-friendly city, and support the planting of milkweed in private gardens, in city medians, in parks, and along waterways. As homeowners, we can make our lawns and gardens butterfly-friendly by eliminating pesticides and herbicides and growing flowers and food plants that benefit other species.
Monarchs are the passenger pigeons of 21st-century America — national symbols on the brink of extinction. Will they stay, or will they go?
It's up to us.