Conservation and Biodiversity

How we can protect monarch butterflies

With their striking beauty, incredible natural history and stunning gatherings in California and Mexico, it’s hard to imagine a creature more simultaneously magical and familiar than the monarch butterfly.

Yet for decades, we’ve seen North American monarchs sliding steadily into decline, and lately free falling: Western monarch populations now stand at less than 1% of historical levels, and eastern monarch populations hover between 20­–30% of their former abundance.

So, how did we get here — and how can we help?

First, let’s examine the threats facing monarchs. Urbanization is destroying pollinator habitats, and monarchs depend on milkweed for laying eggs and abundant nectar sources for food.

Unfortunately, much monarch breeding habitat has been decimated by herbicides and development, and widespread pesticide use has impacted monarch health. Additionally, monarch overwintering sites — where monarchs rest in trees for several months — have deteriorated as a result of climate change.

Monarchs also suffer from a devastating parasite that occurs on milkweed plants, and a non-native variety (Asclepias curassavica) is especially concerning. Unlike native milkweed species, this exotic milkweed does not go dormant in the autumn in warm areas. This encourages winter breeding in monarchs, which can lead to considerably higher parasitic infection and disruptions in migratory behavior.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, was formed in 2014 as a highly collaborative, action-focused and education-oriented conservation framework. There are currently 26 SAFE species programs that build on AZA member-driven conservation efforts. The SAFE North American monarch program was established in 2019 and has formed a network of nearly 80 AZA-accredited institutions and their partners to engage the public in monarch conservation efforts.  

Specifically, SAFE North American monarchs addresses habitat loss, educates the public on monarchs’ threats, and connects individual conservation efforts of AZA-accredited organizations throughout the U.S.

It has never been more important for all of us to work together for their recovery, and you can join the fight — below are several steps you can take to protect monarch butterflies:

Be an environmental steward for monarchs

While tropical milkweed may be easy to get at your local nursery, it carries potentially devastating risks for monarchs, particularly in southern states, where it can persist year-round.  Instead, advocate for native milkweed and pesticide-free nectar plants. To find regionally appropriate milkweed, check out these resources from SAFE monarchs partner, Monarch Joint Venture. Then ask your local nursery to stock it.

Support community science efforts to track monarchs’ numbers, movements and disease

For decades, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has monitored western monarch populations and resources. Volunteers are key to this effort, and their data help inform conservation planning and management.

Visit the community science project Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper to enter your monarch sightings. Another community science initiative is Project Monarch Health, which tracks disease in monarch butterflies across North America.

Advocate for monarchs through government 

We urgently need more monarch breeding habitats, as well as protections for overwintering sites.  From enlisting the help of local and federal governments, to petitioning for changes in existing laws, you can advocate for the protection and recovery of monarchs. Ask your representatives to support the monarch’s recovery through the following programs and legislative bills:

Now, more than ever, migratory monarchs need everyone’s help. Through the collective power, advocacy and action of zoos, aquariums and visitors nationwide, SAFE North American Monarch aims to meet this challenge. Together, we can protect and preserve monarchs. Learn more at Earth Day Network’s Conservation and Biodiversity campaign.