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  • Andy Davis

Monarchs at the center of legal drama over land in Ontario - more preludes of things to come...

Hello everyone,

I'm extremely busy with projects in the lab these days, both with monarchs and my other study subjects, but I had to fire off a short post about some recent happenings north of the border. There is something very interesting going on up there that we should all be paying attention to, since it seems like this is going to happen a lot if the monarchs become listed on the endangered species list. That decision by the USFWS is still pending.

I briefly touched on this topic in a previous post describing the challenges of identifying "monarch migration habitat" (link here). In a nutshell, there is a parcel of land in Ontario, right on the water of Lake Ontario, that a developer is trying to obtain and build houses on. The local people who live near this spot aren't happy about this, and the issue is now in dispute, with lawyers involved, city officials, and conservation groups. And, at the heart of things now, is the lowly monarch (well, maybe not "lowly"). Keep in mind that this is a vast oversimplification of this dispute for the sake of brevity.

I actually have a bit of a stake in this. I was contacted a year or two ago to weigh in on the monarch issue. Apparently, this site is a nice little natural area, with trees, shrubs, greenery, and nice walking paths. I can see why the locals don't want this to go through. I can also see why the developer does (ch-ching)! To give you some context, I'm going to show you a map of the region, then some photos of the location. These pictures were passed on to me by a local naturalist who frequents the site, Jim Ellis. He tells me that he and his crew visit this area for tagging, and just last year they collected and tagged over 1000 monarchs!

Here is the location of the site in relation to the monarch flyway. You can see it's right in the center of the Ontario breeding range. This is where Don Davis hails from too, and recall that he always has lots of tagged monarchs reaching Mexico from here.

And here is a zoomed in image showing the greenspace this is in dispute. The blue is the north shore of the lake. It's not clear to me which part of the green area will be developed.

Next, here are some on-the-ground pictures of this place from Jim (that's Jim in the photos):

Beautiful, right? I can totally see myself doing exactly what Jim is doing here. Especially since so many monarchs appear to be at this site - more on this later. Look at all of the goldenrod, especially. I bet these are magnets for migrating monarchs.

So as I said, early on in this drama, I was contacted by an official from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, specifically to weigh in on the importance of this site to the monarchs. Monarchs are listed as endangered within the province of Ontario, which I think is what has spurred a lot of this debate. Interestingly, I recall the questions I was asked pertained almost explicitly to the importance of the trees at this site for roosting monarchs. I had spearheaded a project years ago where my team and I examined roost tree "selection" by migrating monarchs (link here to see it), and apparently that project factored heavily in the current dispute. It sounds like some of the trees on this site, such as those in the picture above, were going to be cut down in the developer's plans, but, the townsfolk knew that some of these trees were "used" by monarchs for roosts in the fall. Thus, the question I was asked was, how important are those trees to monarchs, and could another tree be used in the migration?

I recall my answer was a little shaky, for a couple reasons. First, aside from that one study I had done years ago, we really don't have much to go on in terms of research on this subject. Second, one of the main conclusions from that prior paper was that monarchs seems to be able to use a heck of a lot of different tree types during the migration. In other words, they don't seem to be very selective, at least for roost trees. These two things combined are both discussed in that previous post about the difficulties in defining migration habitat. And this doesn't just apply to roost trees - in fact, monarchs appear to be capable of "using" a lot of different plants and flowers and "habitats" along their migratory journey. So in the end, I think I told the official that if the cut trees are replaced with others, then the monarchs should be ok. But, I do recall telling them that there should be at least some trees (i.e. not a parking lot).

Since then it sounds like things have heated up with this dispute. There have actually been a couple of local news stories on this now, which I'll link to here.

From reading these stories, and reading a little between the lines, it sounds like the dispute has evolved from being just over the trees, to now the entire site, and its importance to monarchs. It sounds like the local conservation group has challenged the plans, on the grounds that "monarchs use the site". The developer has then hired a local ecologist, who surveyed the site for a number of days in the fall and actually counted monarchs. The ecologist (they aren't named) determined that monarchs are present at the site, but now people are trying to figure out if the actual number of monarchs found is enough to warrant "protection" of the site, or in other words, enough to quash the developer plans. Apparently, there needs to be some threshold number of butterflies for it to warrant official protection by the province.

It will be interesting to watch and see how this all unfolds. If the city does end up denying the developer, over the fact that the site is used by monarchs, I think this would set a very important, but also kind of scary, precedent. On the one hand, they would be justified in doing so in my book. Considering the location of the site in the middle of the suburbs, and being on the north shore of Lake Ontario, I would say this location would serve as a key stopover site for migrants. In the animal migration world (not just monarchs), sites along big water crossings are always important, as they offer the animals a last rest or food-stop before heading across the water. And, this is a reasonably large green area in a sea of yards, streets and houses (look at that aerial photo), which would also be visually appealing to high-flying migrants. Then, consider all of the goldenrod in those pictures, as well as the other flowering plants, which are heavily-used by migrating monarchs. And finally, consider that Jim reported catching over 1000 monarchs there just last year alone. All of this combined means that this is a very important site for migrating monarchs.

This would be a very scary precedent to set though. I'm thinking of the upcoming decision to list the monarchs in the US. If places where monarchs can be found require federal protection, this could make things really complicated for a lot of people. If you think about it, any place where monarchs roost during migration, even if it's in a homeowner's backyard, would be therefore considered "important monarch habitat", wouldn't it? Or, let's look at this from another perspective, and this could be considered a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. Say a parcel of land is used by monarchs, and it happens to be privately-owned. Could any well-meaning conservationist then legally challenge that the site should be protected, and in perpetuity? And to carry this hypothetical further, what if land-owners catch wind that their property hosts federally-protected monarchs? Would they work to ensure that the location is uninhabitable, to avoid all of this? This happens with other federally-protected critters - the phrase, "shoot, shovel and shut up" comes to mind.

I guess you could say I'm very concerned over the complexities that would ensue now that we're on this path to federal protection for the monarch. For us researchers, this would place our work in jeopardy too! I'm certainly not looking forward to the day when I have to apply to get permission to study monarchs!

I should finish this post off to keep from digressing! Anyway, let's all keep our eyes on the drama unfolding up in Ontario. Hopefully, Don or Jim will keep us posted.

That's all for now.


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The science of monarch butterflies

A blog about monarchs, written by a monarch scientist, for people who love monarchs

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