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Scott Rall: Going, going, gone

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

In the land of game fish and wildlife there have been success stories. The Canada goose was almost gone and now their numbers have reached a point where they are becoming a nuisance in many places. There is more deer and elk on the continent today than at any other time in modern history.

When we do things right we can make a big difference.

In is unfortunate that we don’t often do many things right in the land of game, fish and wildlife. All we have to do is look around a little at the plight of the lowly honey bee and we can see that we have a long way to go in protecting those things that are critical to our way of life.

There is one little creature that we do not necessarily need to survive, but it would be hard to imagine a life without them. This little creature is the monarch butterfly. These miraculous creatures are very likely going to be past history Minnesota in the next few decades. They need very little to thrive, but what they need is either no longer available or is such short supply as to be unable to meet their meager needs.

Monarch populations are counted when they winter in Mexico. They group in the thousands in a small forested area, and it is the size of this area. I will get back to this spot in a minute.

Most monarch butterflies live only a very short time. They exist inside the egg for four days. They live as a caterpillar for two weeks. They then move to the pupa stage in a cocoon for 10 days and then live as adult butterflies for 2-6 weeks and the cycle starts over. An annual cycle includes four generations.

The first generation starts in early March when the first butterflies hatch and start a migration northward. In May/June the second generation is born and the butterflies continue their trek northward. The third generation is born in July/August and the fourth generation is born in Sept/Oct. It is the fourth generation that does what I think is almost completely impossible.

After reaching adulthood the fourth generation butterflies do not die like the three generations before them in the calendar year. This fourth generation migrates to Mexico and winters there, living for 6-8 months before laying their eggs and then dying. Why the first three generations die at the age of six weeks and the fourth generation lives for 6-8 months and flies thousands of miles is a wonder of nature.

These butterflies have been doing this for thousands of years. Why is it that over the past 10 years they have had their populations decline by over 90 percent? How can a creature crash and burn in only 10 years that has existed for thousands of years with no problems?

Man has a few ideas as to why this is happening.

Monarch butterflies need one very important thing in their lives. That thing is a plant called a milkweed. Monarchs lay their eggs on this plant and the caterpillars eat their leaves as part of their life cycle. Milkweeds come in several varieties and none of them are on the noxious weed list, but their name insinuates that they are a weed so they must be bad. Milkweeds are a wetland type plant and prefer moist soils. They are pretty prolific but they are easily killed by chemical application.

Experts have determined that there are two major causes for the decline of the monarch butterfly.

The first is the use of round-up ready crops. These are crops that can be treated with a herbicide containing a chemical called glysulfate. This chemical kills everything green except the crop that has been genetically modified to be immune to it. In the old days, row cropped fields were weeded with a garden hoe by legions of young kids. They did a good job of removing most of the weeds but not nearly as good as the new chemical applications. You can drive across the state and see thousands upon thousands of acres of corn and beans and in the process not see one single weed.

No weeds means no milkweed, and this means no monarch butterflies.

As I mentioned earlier, milkweeds grow in undisturbed grasslands and prefer wet places. As the wet area of farm fields get drained by field drain tile, the drowned out areas no longer sprout up with milkweeds. Wildlife habitat in general provides places for milkweed to grow as no chemicals are applied to these acres. As wildlife habitat destruction continues across the United States, so goes the milkweed and in turn the monarch butterfly. As mentioned a few weeks back, fence lines were another spot for a few lowly milkweeds, but the fence line is quickly becoming a sight of the past.

There is one other cause that is participating in the decline of the monarch butterfly. This is the cutting of the trees in the unprotected forest areas where they winter in in Mexico. There is a movement to save these areas, but we will have to see how successful they are.

The wintering area is a very small spot. It does not cover thousands of miles. In 1995 it was 45 acres in size. Today it is 1.65 acres in size.

The migration of monarch butterflies might very well end in just the next few years. They can continue to survive in the warmer climates, but most of the butterflies that migrate come from the agricultural areas of the Midwest. Butterflies are also pollinators, and with the decline in the honey bee I think that keeping these members of the pollinator family around might be a very good idea.

When grasslands get converted to other uses many will say, “If we have a few less pheasants or a few less deer nobody will live or die over that outcome.” The true story is that with the destruction of our natural areas, not only do we lose the recreational use of these lands and the economic impact that they produce on our small town economies, we lose much, much more.

Every creature great or small has a reason for being on the planet. They all fill a niche that needs filling, and when we start to lose those section of the ecosystem occupied by this one or that one, there will be a bigger price to pay down the road. We don’t know today what this future cost is, but I am confident that when we do find out we will have wished we would have paid more attention when we could have actually done something about it.

Monarch butterflies need milkweeds and people need monarch butterflies. I have spent the past 25 years learning about the prairie and the creatures that live there. I think I can name the names of about 100 prairie flowers.

What I had not experienced until just a few months ago was just how sweet the smell of a milkweed blossom is. Les Johnson picked one and held it to my nose. I had never experienced a flower smell like this before. If you have never smelled one there is no other flower native or imported that smells as good as this one.

There is one way to experience this, and that’s to go take a walk in some wildlife habitat until you find one and experience this for yourself. Guys are not really supposed to be into flowers. They are not manly, you know. I will be glad to say out loud that native grasses and flowers really do it for me. Smell a native milkweed and you will most likely be able to say the same thing.

I did lose a bet to Les on the identification of one specific species of milkweed. Swamp milkweed and common milkweed have a blossom that look almost the same. The difference is in the shape of the leaves. Call me, Les, and I will be glad to buy you that beer.