Michigan towns help monarch butterfly population recover

When 8-year-old Highland resident Maecy Zarate saw the milkweed mowed down along the median of M-59 – the town’s main thoroughfare – she was outraged.

Milkweed is the primary food source for monarch butterflies, an endangered species whose population has been on the decline since the 1980s.

Joined by her brother Jason, along with sisters Emma and Anna Thelander and Cub Scout Pack 381, Maecy took the matter to Highland’s city council asking for their help in protecting the major plant pollinator’s habitat and encouraging them to become an official Monarch City.

In 2018, Highland became the first of six Michigan communities to receive the designation, spurring a series of community initiatives and events to protect monarch butterflies and draw awareness to their plight.

“It’s something to be proud of that we have residents of all ages that are concerned,” said Cassie Blascyk, Highland’s assistant to the supervisor. “It’s not just one person, and it’s affected a whole community.”

Since the designation, Blascyk said Highland has worked with the Michigan Department of Transportation to protect the stretch of M-59 that passes through Highland, reducing mowing and adding native pollinator plants and bugs, dubbing it the “Milkweed Mile.”

The township has also planted more native gardens and partnered with other community entities to host events that draw awareness to the importance of protecting monarch butterflies, including instilling a Monarch Festival at the local farmers' market in 2020. The now annual event encourages people to dress in costume and participate in monarch-themed crafts and activities and hear
environmental talks about pollinators and native plants.

Blascyk said the event has become a big draw for the farmers' market, and the township’s overall efforts have been popular.

“Everybody loves butterflies,” she said. “It’s kind of a nice way the community can rally around something and be proud.”

Established in 2015, Washington state-based Monarch City USA offers the “Monarch City” designation to municipalities that express interest in protecting monarch butterflies and other natural pollinators.

Founder Russell Stubbles, a retired environmental studies professor, started the organization after learning about the plight of the butterflies and realizing its effect on the larger human population as pollinators for our food sources.

“You cannot kill off the monarch butterflies without killing yourself,” he said. “It’s the canary-in-the-mine kind of thing.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly a billion monarch butterflies have vanished since 1990.

Stubbles said factors like pesticides, climate change and wall-to-wall farming – which removes former marginal areas used for native pollinators – hurt monarchs by killing their natural milkweed habitats.

He said his Monarch City designations not only serve to draw awareness and encourage efforts to save monarch butterflies in the country but can also serve as tourism draws to support local economies. Around the country, Monarch Cities including Cole Camp, Mo., Brookings, Ore., Morgantown, W. Va., and Zion, Ill. have monarch festivals, which Stubbles said supports local businesses. He said the designation has also increased interest and collaborations with local
“Monarch Schools.”

“Monarch Cities should develop in areas in the United States where people can travel and tour and see monarchs on the fly at a festival,” he said. “It’s a delight for everybody; nobody loses, everybody wins.”

Boyne City was designated a Monarch City this past year and is one of several in Michigan.

While Highland has had success in establishing its annual festival, Michigan’s other monarch cities, which include Elk Rapids, Kalkaska, Boyne City and Walloon Lake’s Melrose Township, are relatively new additions, having received their designations in the last year. Beaver Island became the latest member of Michigan’s monarch club in July, becoming Monarch City USA’s first “Monarch Island.”

But for most of the towns, the primary motivator for the designation is to protect local pollinators and is usually initiated by community members.

“Without pollinators, we don’t have food,” said Skylar MacNaughton, who leads the Monarch City effort for Boyne City. “Food doesn’t come from boxes, it comes from the earth. If we keep losing pollinators, we’re not going to have a healthy food source.”

MacNaughton is also the president of Michigan Butterfly Habitats, a non-profit he founded last year with the goal of increasing the monarch population throughout the state. In Boyne City, MacNaughton has planted about 300 native pollinator-friendly plants in the past three years and has a 10-year plan to fill the face of the Avalanche Peak hill in the city’s Avalanche Mountain Preserve park with milkweed and wildflowers, which he said will also help stop erosion.

Statewide, he wants to draw more awareness to the problem, encouraging locals to plant more milkweed and other pollinators, but also to increase these plantings along roadsides and powerlines.

“There are many things that we can do differently that would benefit our state, our state’s health and bring back healthy numbers for the monarch migration,” he said, “because we are one of the main flyaways [for monarchs].”

Lauri Juday, an avid monarch preservationist who leads the Monarch City efforts for Walloon Lake, raises monarch butterflies and tags them to track their population and migration patterns to and from Mexico. She tries to raise 2,000 monarchs every year and has noticed a significant population decline, with only 292 returning in her worst summer.

“We’re losing the battle if we don’t change this,” she said, “and we can change this, but we’ve got to do it now.”

Juday regularly gives sustainability presentations about monarch butterflies but decided it was time for the larger community to get involved. She presented a plan of action to the township board, which included limiting the spraying of pesticides and identifying viable city land to plant milkweed and other pollinators, efforts she was already working on with the Walloon Lake Association and Conservancy.

A participant in the Monarch Festival. For her, the Monarch City designation is about drawing greater awareness to the plight of the monarchs, especially to encourage landowners to plant more milkweed and farm responsibly.

“You start in your own hometown, and you hope that it takes root and goes into other communities as well,” she said.

For future outlook, MacNaughton – who is poised to take over the national organization when Stubbles steps down – is optimistic. He said the designation alone assists in applying for preservation grants but is also seeing more general interest from the public, which he thinks will continue to grow.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more monarch cities pop up, and you’re going to see monarch stuff everywhere here in the next 10 years,” he said. “I think it’s going to be one of those niches that takes off and finally gets in front of people’s eyes. Hopefully, it’s not just merchandise, people actually start caring about Mother Nature.”

Communities or individuals interested in learning more about Monarch Cities can visit www.monarchcityusa.com for more information.

Erica Hobbs is a writer based in Detroit with a passion for arts and culture and travel. She has reported for numerous news outlets including the Detroit News, Fodors, Business Insider, Reuters, WDET and AnnArbor.com (now the Ann Arbor News), among others.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.