Monarch butterflies have suffered from habitat loss in Mexico where they winter, and also along their migration route to Canada. (Photo by Dorothy Tuthill)

Every year thousands of monarch butterflies migrate from the warmth of southern Mexico where they winter, all the way to Canada, laying eggs along the route. Some butterflies will travel more than 3,000 miles.  

The butterflies are losing their wintering grounds to deforestation, said Lusha Tronstad, invertebrate zoologist with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. Urbanization and insecticides take away the milkweed where the butterflies lay eggs and caterpillars feed. In 2014 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to put monarch butterflies on the endangered species list. The agency says more data is needed on the invertebrates to make a listing determination for the monarch, and several Wyoming groups are taking action to help.

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The Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, the Nature Conservancy and the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute started a citizen scientist project last year to find out how and when the butterflies rely on habitat in Wyoming.

“We know nothing about them, other than they are here,” Tronstad said. “We see the birds, the bears and the antelope, but we often don’t pay attention to the spineless creatures out there.”

The multi-year data collection effort relies on volunteers across the state. When people see a monarch, or milkweed, they report it online. In its pilot year, about a dozen volunteers reported a total 28 observations of monarchs in Laramie, Kemmerer, Lander, Cody, Cheyenne and Buffalo, said Brenna Marsicek, outreach coordinator at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. That first year proved butterflies use the state. People also reported finding eggs on milkweed plants, Marsicek said. That’s significant, but scientists still need more information about how much they reproduce in Wyoming.

Scientists are trying to document how many monarch butterflies use Wyoming during migration. (photo by Melanie Arnett)

Anyone can help by reporting their monarch observations on the groups’ website Monarchs & Milkweeds. The website lists how to identify the butterflies and report sightings. Organizers are especially interested in reports of milkweed. Several species found in Wyoming are rare.

Monarchs lay eggs on milkweed, and when the eggs hatch the caterpillars eat the plant, giving them a bitter taste that deters many predators. Wyoming has several species of milkweed, including five that are found in few other places, Marsicek said. Documenting where those plants are and if the butterflies are using them is important in understanding what habitat needs to be preserved to help monarchs survive their migration.

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Monarchs are important pollinators. They also are a food source for birds and other species. They seem small, but their survival is crucial to healthy ecosystems from Mexico to Canada.

Tronstad said the data collection effort is a perfect opportunity to include citizen scientists. Theoretically the butterflies flew throughout the state so it was important to have at least one data site in every county. That would have been too expensive and large an effort without recruiting volunteers.

Monarchs are also easy to identify with their bright orange coloring. They have only one mimic, the viceroy, which has a straight line across its back wing, unlike the uneven markings on a monarch. Most people can tell the difference between the two species once they know what to look for.

Plus, if ever there was an invertebrate people would get excited about helping, it’s a butterfly.

“Monarchs are a charismatic microfauna,” Tronstad said. “Everyone knows what a monarch is. They are carrying the flag for all invertebrates.”

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. I have only observed two monarchs this year. My little milkweed patch does very well. I have had much better years. Swallow tails were not as many this year either. Painted Ladies were diminished as well. I have harvested the milkweed pods and will broadcast in the March winds. It is now mid October and we are experiencing a much greater population of late robins. We have never seen robins this late. I have to fill the bird bath several times some days. Really, a dozen and more robins at a time in the bath. They are drinking robustly. What is up?

  2. Had a black witch moth in Daniel about 10 years ago. Will document when I find the photo.

  3. I saw my first in the Wind River Canyon near Thermopolis on 7/30/16. This seems pretty typical, they show up pretty late.

      1. Hi Brenna, also saw 3 more at and elevation of about 7500 ft at Limestone going up South Pass on Sept. 25 and another the next week there on Oct 2. 2 in my Lander perennial garden in August.

  4. I cannot report what I do not see. I have long been a Monarch enthusiast and first visited the reclusive winter sanctuaries in Michoacán Mexico back in 1988 and again in 1997. I’ve always planted flowers that attract butterflies at home in Cody , and I take evening cruises out to the rural areas where Milkweed still grows in abundance and has not been sprayed by Park County Weed and Pest. ( I also plant milkweed out along the ditches and near riparian fens ) . Five years back I was seeing seeing several Monarchs per summer, maybe a couple dozen . Last summer I saw only two- one at home and one out in the country . This year so far : None.
    I also have raised Tiger Swallowtail butterflies.

    One interesting sidenote: just last week I had a very large moth fly in thru my open door and flutter about the room , eventually settling on my backpack hanging in the closet. I photographed it alongside a ruler…6.5 inch wingspan , dark brown , two large ” eyes” on its wingtips and a pattern of intricate markings. Turns out is was a tropical Black Witch , a night flying moth that normally is not seen any further north than south Texas and Gulf states. Black Witches are very well known in the folklore of Mexico and the Caribbean , and are common in the Amazon Basin. They are often mistaken for Bats. But how and why was this one cruising around in high altitude Wyoming ? My ecologist friend says it likely was whooshed up on monsoonal flow winds.

    I turned it loose in my neighbor’s shady back yard , wondering about the latest undocumented immigrant from Latin America.

    1. Footnote: shoulda waited a day . i saw my first / only Monarch of Summer 2016 on Sunday July 31 in my neighborhood in Cody the day after I posted I hadn’t seen any . He must’ve read the comment and flitted right over. Got some nice photos.

  5. The “scientists” mentioned in this news story are not being sincere. They known elementary school teachers in Wyoming had previously documented the life history of the monarch decades ago; e.g. the butterflies arrive throughout the State in May, lay eggs on milkweed plants which also occur throughout the State and produce 2-3 generations of new butterflies in Wyoming. The final generation flies to the overwintering sites in central Mexico.

    So these scientists are pretending this information is not already known and worse, these scientists intend to take credit for it as “newly discovered” information! Worse still, the taxpayers are being fleeced because they are bank rolling these scientists to conduct research that was conducted decades ago.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comment, I’ll repeat my response to your comment I just posted in the Laramie Boomerang. The statements we made in this article are based off of the documented data that we can access. The elementary school teachers’ data sounds wonderful, and we would love to incorporate it into the database if you have it or know where to access it. The goal for this project is to document the many observations that may be in Wyomingites’ computers, notebooks or cell phone camera galleries, into one central database so biologists and others can access them for projects like, but not limited to, this one.

      As to your comment about fleecing taxpayers, on the contrary: this project and all personnel hours charged to this project are entirely funded from private donations.

      Feel free to email biodiversity@uwyo.edu if you have other questions or concerns.

      Thank you,
      Monarchs and Milkweeds team