Minnesota organizations working to save monarch butterflies, now considered endangered

It's a sad week for one of the most recognizable butterflies in the world. For the first time, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the migrating monarch butterfly to its red list of threatened species, designating them as endangered.

But there are researchers and volunteers in the Twin Cities who are working to preserve the endangered beauties.

Once a week, volunteers head to Falcon Heights Community Park and examine each milkweed plant.

"We are looking for eggs, we're looking for caterpillars, and then if there are any live adults, we keep track of that," said Marti Starr, a Minnesota master naturalist and a volunteer with the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

The monitoring program, run by the St. Paul-based nonprofit Monarch Joint Venture, helps protect the beautiful and brittle population.

"You can also do it in your own backyard and help show like we are in trouble," Starr said.

Her cry for help comes the week international scientists put the iconic orange and black creatures on the endangered list because of their fast declining numbers.

"A species as familiar as the monarch -- people don't always realize that they've experienced drastic declines," said Wendy Caldwell, executive director of the Monarch Joint Venture. "This primary largest eastern North American population that migrates to Central Mexico has experienced dramatic declines: 80 percent over the last few decades. And in the West, the population has declined by greater than 95 percent from historic highs."

Caldwell has worked on monarch butterfly conservation since 2007. Though it's sad to see the species reach this point, she hopes it will bring more awareness to the issue.

"We're seeing new people coming to the conservation table in an unprecedented way, and I am hopeful that we can continue to grow in our conservation efforts in this broader conservation movement, that we can make a difference for monarchs and pollinators," Caldwell said.

Monarchs can be hurt by insecticides, so researchers at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus are testing out different chemicals on Japanese beetles, the insects that are sprayed for the most in Minnesota. 

The researchers are working this summer under a grant funded by the state of Minnesota. Their goal is to target the beetles without threatening the butterflies.

"That's sort of what interests me most about doing research is actually having a tangible effect on species that I care about, species that I like looking at and that I enjoy studying," said researcher Cody Prouty.

For Prouty, the endangered designation could mean more funding toward the conservation of pollinators, like monarchs.

"They've been on a real steep decline for at least a decade, and I'm glad that they're getting more recognition," Prouty said. "People are more interested, and when people are more interested, we do better research."

The U.S. hasn’t listed monarchs under the Endangered Species Act, but several environmental groups believe it should be listed.

In the meantime, conservationists say we can all play a role in making sure the butterflies don't go extinct right in our own gardens.

"The best thing we can do for monarchs is to create habitats that supports them. So for monarchs, that includes any species of milkweeds. Milkweed (is) the only host plant that Monarch caterpillars can eat, but they also need nectar resources, something that's blooming throughout the growing season," Caldwell said.

Dr. Vera Krischik, an associate professor and extension specialist, runs the lab Prouty works in at the university. She crafted a university bulletin on how to create a butterfly garden. She explains which plants and flowers to include, and the need to reduce the use of pesticides.