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  • Andy Davis

Monarchs were just used as a case study in a review paper on "misplaced conservation"

Hello readers,

I hadn't really planned to write this blog post, but I just read an interesting new paper, and it struck a chord with me, so I have some thoughts to share. I also felt like this paper should be read by people in the monarch community, be they amateurs, professionals, or scientists - exactly the people who read this blog!

As you can tell from the blog title, this is not something that will be easy for people to swallow, especially for the folks who are doing what the paper talks about (more on that later). But, as everyone knows by now, I don't shy away from the hard discussions. Nor should anyone else, really, since this is something that needs to be discussed openly.

OK, here is the link to this new paper, which was a review of multiple studies across a very wide variety of research disciplines (i.e. not just monarchs). The paper is fully online, so there is no excuse not to read it. It is titled, Understanding and avoiding misplaced efforts in conservation, and it appears to be the work of a large group of authors, most who are in universities in Canada. I don't recognize any of these people as scientists of monarchs. The paper was published earlier this year, though I actually just read it now.

Here is a quick synopsis of the paper. Using a series of case studies, the authors describe how conservation mistakes can be made, often by well-meaning people or organizations (or even the government), which can actually hurt the species or natural system in question. They describe how there are some commonalities in these case studies, which they outline, and then they go on to provide some advice for how to avoid these mistakes - this seems like a productive and admirable goal.

They actually list all of these case studies in a big table in the paper (Table 1), which I found fascinating. Here is a quick example of one case study of "misplaced conservation efforts": Salmon fish had been declining in a big lake in British Columbia up to the 1950s. The Canadian government decided to release a non-native shrimp into the lake to bolster the salmon in the 1960s. The shrimp ended up competing with the juvenal salmon for plankton, and this led to even more declines of the salmon stock! Here is another one: In the 2010s, a series of amateur-led petitions were created to ban shark-finning in the US, but in fact, shark-finning was already banned in the 90s! The list goes on with many more examples, including everything from bees to ocean plastics.

The authors describe how misplaced conservation can arise from many reasons, but they point out that one thing that is common to most cases, is that there is a decline (or perception of a decline) in the species in question, or that there is a dire threat to the natural system in question. This, they argue, leads people to think that "something must be done right away" or "before it is too late", etc. They point out that sometimes there are organizations that even amplify this message, sometimes for their own motives. Then they describe how another big factor leading to misplaced conservation is where the public is confused on the issue, either by the varying science, or from online misinformation, or from the loud cries of the aforementioned organizations.

As I read all of this, I found myself nodding my head, thinking, yes, this is happening right now with monarchs.

Apparently, the authors of this paper thought so too. In their table of case studies, they list the monarch very prominently, and here is where it may get uncomfortable (for some). They list the planting of tropical milkweed by homeowners as a case of "misplaced conservation". They reference the now-infamous journalist piece from Science in 2015 titled, Plan to save monarch butterflies backfires." This piece was a summary of the evidence that tropical milkweed enhances the prevalence of the OE parasite. At the time, this evidence was fairly new and splashy. It is not new now, and in fact, there is even more research now supporting the dangers of this one plant to monarchs and the monarch migration. The irony is that people who plant it believe they are helping.

It gets even more uncomfortable - the authors also included another line of their table that lists how people are captive-rearing monarchs with the intention of helping them, but this is also causing harm to the population. They cite the one study by Tenger-Trolander et al that described how captive-reared monarchs do not orient themselves properly in a flight simulator. [A quick aside here, now I know, that everyone who rears monarchs now thinks that that study was debunked by a recent paper that appeared to show how reared monarchs could "regain" their navigational senses when released. If you read that new study very very carefully, it did not actually show this, and in fact, I have an inside scoop for you - that paper is about to be debunked!]. In fact, since the Tenger-Trolander study, there has been additional evidence emerging against this practice too. [Another inside scoop - there is more forthcoming].

The picture above is from a related piece from NWF - *"The downsides of home rearing"

Anyway, the upshot here is that these authors believed that monarchs are an example where there are misplaced conservation efforts, because people (who believe they are helping) are planting tropical milkweed, and/or captive-rearing monarchs for release. I think I agree with this. For both of these practices, there is solid evidence from the scientific world that shows there are problems or risks to the monarch population. I don't think I will go into details here, since I have already done so in other posts.

I also took note that both of these monarch items were listed as stemming from 1) a decline, and 2) a confused public. These were specifically checked off in their table. I also agree with this too. Right now, the entire world believes the monarch is close to extinction, and also right now, the amount of misinformation out there on monarchs is unbelievable, especially in Facebook groups. Maybe I'll do a bog on this at some point.

I noted that the paper ends with a bit of advice from these authors on how to avoid these misplaced conservation efforts. They have a couple of paragraphs devoted to this, but in the end, I think they have two bits of advice: First, there needs to be cooperation - I think they mean between public, government and scientists - so that everyone is on the same page and engaged in the same actions. Second, they argue that scientists need to have a means of evaluating the conservation actions that are currently being used. I think they mean that there needs to be a way of redirecting actions that ultimately aren't working, and/or tweaking those that are working.

Right now, we don't have this within the world of monarch conservation, and I'm not sure if we ever will. The problem is that these two misplaced actions (planting tropical milkweed, rearing monarchs) are being led by homeowners and citizens, and scientists have no real (legal) authority to tell them what to do, or manage their actions. I'm not saying that I wish we did have legal authority, but merely stating a fact. Actually, when we try to tell people what to do, they get annoyed and huffy. We can (and often do) provide advice or direction, based on results of our scientific studies, but then, people need to accept this advice, which is another story... A few people do though! It would also help if there weren't Facebook admins who delete any mention of the science around these issues! So in other words, there are a lot of reasons for why scientists in the monarch world are not able to redirect these misplaced conservation actions. All we can do is communicate our findings from our research.

Anyway, as you can tell, I was fascinated by this new review paper, which is why I have lots to say about it, and, wanted to share. Please do read the paper. Here is the link again.

So as not to end on a low note, allow me to offer some humble advice to you, dear blog reader, on what YOU can do to help mitigate this problem. I'm not talking about the obvious advice I would give, i.e. don't plant tropical milkweed or mass-rear monarchs. I'm talking about the problem of cooperation and communication. And best of all, this is simple to do. My advice - share this post. Share it and start a conversation about the evidence, about the science, about monarch conservation, and about the mistakes that have been made too. We need communication to have cooperation. And the communication needs to be real, not edited, or deleted, or with comments turned off.

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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