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Tracking the unbelievable

Monarch Watch collects data from incredible journey

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When Carroll County Conservation Naturalist Matt Wetrich presents nature programs, he relishes the opportunity to share awe-inspiring stories.

“I think there’s great value in finding yourself in awe,” Wetrich said. “That’s the great thing about nature. There are so many awe-inspiring aspects. That’s what we try to do, expose people to some of those ‘awe moments,’ and there’s a lot of good that comes from that.”

The Carroll area recently was visited by some of those awesome stars of nature: vivid orange-and-black monarch butterflies on their incredible thousands-mile-long annual migration from the northern United States and southern Canada to their overwintering destination, mountain-hillside forests in Mexico.

Spotlighting that migration, Wetrich this month visited classrooms in local schools and hosted a program at the Conservation Education Center at Swan Lake State Park to enlist students’ and the public’s help in Kansas University’s Monarch Watch tagging program, which seeks to collect information each year about this extraordinary flight.

“It’s an incredible journey for an insect that weighs as little as a paper clip or a dollar bill,” Wetrich said of the monarchs.

In addition, there are the monarchs’ built-in navigational system.

“The fact you have this insect with a brain the size of a sesame seed being able to navigate 2,000 to 3,000 miles, that’s phenomenal,” Wetrich said.

Citing information from a video he showed at the tagging party at Swan Lake State Park on Monday, Sept. 16, Wetrich said, the butterflies’ antennae have an internal compass that keeps them on course, not only just headed south but also factoring the sun’s daily movement from east to west. That innate system works as accurately as the sophisticated navigational systems used by seamen.

The monarchs seen on this stage of the migration is the butterflies’ super generation, which lives approximately eight months. This generation will reach Mexico — butterflies in the western U.S. migrate to southern California — and then go into a sort of dormancy, feeding off stored fat.

“Then around February or March, they kind of wake up and get this itch to move north and breed,” Wetrich said.

Those successive generations live several weeks each as they return north. Altogether it takes another four or five generations to complete the migration circuit.

The tagging information Wetrich gathered will go to Kansas University’s Project Monarch Watch, which records tag dates, gender of the butterflies, geographic location and release dates.

Wetrich said of the Project Monarch Watch mission, “The more we can learn about the life of an animal, the more we can make it better. The more we understand what they need, the more we can provide the right habitat.”

Monarchs begin their migrations in early August and reach this area the first half of September, he said.

In collecting monarchs for his tagging programs, Wetrich said, the population was OK, but he believes there has been a drop in numbers over the years because of the disappearance of milkweed plants, the only place where the butterflies lay their eggs, plus plants needed for nectering.

A recent Associated Press story said, “Rapid development and climate change are escalating the rates of species loss, according to a May United Nations report. For monarchs, farming and other human development have eradicated state-size swaths of native milkweed habitat, cutting the butterfly’s numbers by 90% over the past two decades.”

For his part, Wetrich said, “Since the 1980s, essentially around the time Roundup-ready crops came on, we’ve seen this general trend that (monarch numbers) have been declining.”

People in the U.S., Canada and Mexico must collaborate on providing the habitat for the monarchs to have successful journeys, Wetrich said.

“Particularly in the Corn Belt, we have a lot of opportunity here to help them,” he noted.

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