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  • Andy Davis

Should people be allowed to do whatever they want to "save" monarchs?

Hello everyone,

This blog post is kind of like a head-scratcher, or a food-for-thought piece, and it comes at the heels of yet another national news story that has made the rounds. I'm sure you've seen it - the story from USA Today about a kindly couple from Wisconsin who raised some late fall monarchs in their homes, then shipped some via FedEx to someone in Texas, so they could "catch up with their monarch buddies" on the migration. I'm purposely not putting a link in here, so as not to spread this story any further than it has spread.

If you can't tell, I'm vexed at this story, for a few reasons, which I'll explain here. The first is fairly obvious - this couple was reported to have raised over two hundred monarchs in their home this year. If you are a reader of this blog (and the latest science), you know that the majority of research in the last few years has shown how this is a dangerous practice, and does not really do the population any favors. Most importantly, there was no mention of OE, or disease, etc. in the article, which tells me these people do not test for it. This means they could very well be spreading this parasite through their (well-meaning) efforts. I'll remind everyone here that the latest science on OE shows that it has increased dramatically in the past 15 years, and, that its rise is linked to lower than normal Mexico colonies. See here for the blog on that.

Speaking of OE, one of the other vexing issues with this story is the fact that this couple shipped the adult monarchs from one state to another. The piece even mentions that this is the second year that they shipped monarchs to Texas! Shipping monarchs is one of the best ways to spread parasites and disease. If even one of these monarchs were infected with OE, think of how much harm will be caused by spreading this parasite. In fact, if even one monarch was infected in that FedEx box, it very well would have spread spores to the rest just by the jostling and bumping around in the box. The other monarchs would then be carrying spores around (although they would not be technically infected themselves). Finally, if ANY monarch from their rearing operation in their home was infected, the spores from that monarch would easily contaminate the home rearing supplies and gear. Remember, these spores fall off like glitter. Bottom line here - people who rear monarchs and don't test for OE are causing great harm to the monarch population.

Let me bring in a bit of science on this shipping thing. Back in 1995, a number of leading monarch scientists at the time (led by Lincoln Brower) got together to write an opinion piece on the issue of shipping monarchs. It was published in a scientific journal called BioScience, and here is a link where you can download the whole piece. Ironically, that piece was initiated as a response to another case where citizens had taken it upon themselves to carry out an uncontrolled (and reckless) experiment. Apparently, some people had though it would be cool to ship monarchs from one part of North America to another, to see where they would go for their migration (the monarchs were tagged). The opinion piece pointed out the many risks of doing this, and one of the biggest ones was the risk of spreading OE. The other biggie was how this transfer would interfere with scientists' ability to interpret real tagging data.

Anyway, apparently this message needs repeating. Please don't do what this kindly Wisconsin couple did. I know it feels like you are "helping" the monarchs, but you can also be causing great ecological and scientific harm.

I think the other thing that really gets me about this story is that the journalist never consulted anyone who knows better, or if they did, they did not include that in the piece. The piece was all about the feel-good storyline. There was no mention of any scientist, no actual science on the subject at all even, and this is what scares me. This is the state of science journalism these days I guess, where it is not about telling the truth or facts, but about how many clicks you can get.

Believe it or not, I actually don't blame this kindly couple for what they did. I bet too there are a lot of people who probably think they were doing the right thing, and, if given the chance, they would do the same. Here's the thing - let's think about WHY that couple thought they had to save those monarchs, and WHY they took it upon themselves to ship them. My guess is that it's because they think the monarch species is "endangered," and to them that means each individual butterfly must be saved from near-extinction! And why do they think this? Because they've been told this over and over again for the last 10 years! That's right, I blame every organization and person who has been pushing this narrative - every monarchwatch, monarch joint venture, and xerces spokesperson, and now it looks like the IUCN is on board too. Let's not forget the countless milkweed salespeople, butterfly breeders and groups selling rearing supplies. Collectively, this "save-the-monarchs" story has been so hyped, and told so many times by so many people that can you blame some people for taking it literally? I realize that pointing fingers at just about everyone on this list is not going to win me any points with these people, but I call things like I see them. And really, these are the exact people that need to hear what I'm saying. I can get away with this because I'm not part of an organization that needs donations, or volunteers, etc.

If you think about it, not only does the "save-the-monarchs" story convince people that the entire species is in peril, but most of the pieces also have some kind of "what-you-can-do-to-help" bit in them. This part seems to go hand in had with the bit that monarchs are in trouble. Some stories even make it sound like it is up to everyday citizens to save them. So again, can you blame people for taking things into their own hands? The dogma as much as states that they should.

Sidenote - if my take on all of this shocks you, like how could a monarch scientist not be on board the monarchs-need-to-be-saved train, please go back and read the prior blogs showing how the size of the breeding population right now is absolutely humungous, and has not declined in the last two decades.

This brings me to the point of this piece, or the question I pose to you, the blog reader - SHOULD PEOPLE BE ALLOWED TO TAKE MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS, IN THE NAME OF SAVING THE MONARCHS? Think about this for a second, there was absolutely nothing stopping that couple from shipping those monarchs. In theory, monarchs can be shipped legally to a person who has a permit to receive them, but in reality, what is stopping ANYONE from shipping live monarchs to someone else? That's just my point here - right now, ANYONE can do ANYTHING they want if they think it is helping the monarchs. Think about all of the people who are spreading milkweed or wildflower seed bombs everywhere, without thinking very hard about whether the seeds are native. What about people who are happily squishing any predatory bug they find in their yards, so that it doesn't kill their precious monarch babies? There are many examples of this kind of thing...

It's a slippery slope. First you are shipping a few live monarchs to give them a better chance during the migration. It won't be long before people realize that to give monarchs an even better chance, we should just ship tens of thousands directly to Mexico. Or, people might think that an even better approach is just to set up a mega-rearing operation right in central Mexico, and just bypass the migration altogether. I actually recall having this conversation with someone in California many years ago (a kindly, and wealthy lady), who was thinking about setting up a mega-rearing operation right next to the California wintering colonies to "save" the western monarchs. So I'm not really exaggerating here. And really, there was nothing stopping that lady from doing that. She ultimately didn't by the way, because myself and some other scientists talked her out of it.

If you have come to the same conclusion that I have on that question (no, people shouldn't be allowed to do these things), then let me ask you this - how could you stop all of that from happening? Create a "hands-off-the-monarchs" federal law, like they have in California? Maybe that would work. I don't know. Maybe you're thinking that we should just work harder to educate people about the best way to help? Don't know.

I know one approach that would work, but the problem is, it won't bring in any donations, government funding, volunteers, or help with selling milkweeds or rearing equipment. My suggestion? Tell people that monarchs don't need to be saved. They just need us to leave them alone. No one wants to hear this though. But, I bet that if that couple had heard this narrative over and over again instead of the "save-the-monarchs" story, they wouldn't have done what they did.

I'm going to leave it there for you to ponder. If you come up with a solution, please do let me know.



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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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