Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

To get to the wetland on the other side.

It is spring and turtles are active, often moving from one wetland to another. Or females are looking for a place to lay their eggs. These movements often mean turtles must cross roads to get where they want to go.

Over the past two years, the Canadian Wildlife Federation turtle team has found over 1,000 dead turtles on roads in eastern Ontario. That is a staggering amount of mortality. We know that road mortality is a serious threat to turtles and we are working on getting wildlife fencing installed at some of the worst spots to keep turtles off the road.

What Can I Do?

In the mean time, we can all do our part by watching for turtles on roads, particularly when we are driving in rural areas close to lakes and wetlands. The CWF turtle team has rescued over 100 turtles from roads over the past two years. You can help too.

First of all, if you see a turtle trying to cross the road, make sure it is safe to help. If the traffic isn’t too heavy and it is safe to do so, pull off onto the road shoulder and turn on the car’s four-way flashers. Look both ways before heading onto the road to save the turtle. If there are cars coming, don’t risk your life.

With the exception of Snapping Turtles it is fairly easy to pick up most turtles. Use both hands and grab the turtle on either side of the shell. The turtle may not appreciate or understand that it is being rescued from the road and may scratch or pee on you, so be prepared for this. If you have a firm grip on the turtle with both hands you are less likely to drop it if it does scratch you. It’s a good idea to keep a pair of work gloves in the car to protect your hands when moving turtles, and for other roadside adventures.

Always move the turtle in the direction that it is heading. Turtles know where they want to go. Release the turtle on the shoulder of the road and it will likely quickly shuffle away from you and the road. Take a bow, as you just saved a turtle.

Moving Snapping Turtles, especially large ones, is more challenging. Snapping Turtles can be fast and they can bite. They can also spin around quickly or even lunge. Do not grab the sides of the shell of a Snapping Turtle as the head may whip around and bite you.

One option to move a Snapping Turtle is the car mat drag. Place a car mat behind the turtle, grab the back of the shell near the back legs and drag the turtle onto the mat. Do not drag the turtle by its tail as this can injure the turtle. Once the turtle is on the mat, drag the mat off the road, keeping one hand on the back of the turtle.

Another technique for moving a Snapping Turtle is the shovel lift. If you have a shovel in the car, approach the turtle from behind and slide the shovel under it. Then lift and move the Snapping Turtle off the road. Don’t lift the shovel too far above the road as the turtle may try to move and fall off the shovel.

To see how to safely pick up a Snapping Turtle by hand, check out our video on how to move a turtle off the road.

To learn more how you can help turtles, visit HelpTheTurtles.ca

On Point

A few barbed comments about the amazing porcupine and what we might learn from studying its quills

Surely, when the choice of our national animal was made, the beaver just edged out the porcupine. Yes, the fur trade was built on beavers, and yes, they are a huge environmental asset, and yes, neither can be said of porcupines. But the porcupine has one of the most technologically advanced defence systems in the natural world, and that should have counted for something.

porcupine crossing road © Donna Dolby

Porcupines are the world’s third largest rodent, after the beaver and the capybara. There are species scattered around the world, but the several sub-species in North America are unique because they have barbed quills. Thirty thousand of them. You’d think the barbs would make them very hard to pull out — and you’d be right: as you tug on a quill to remove it from you (or your dog!), the barbs, which are usually flat against the shaft of the quill, open up and spread out horizontally into the flesh, a little like opening an umbrella. The harder you pull, the more they spread out, in effect making the quill thicker and wider than the puncture hole it made in the first place.

Although the impact of a muzzle-full of quills is the point, the quills don’t stop there. Once embedded in the skin or muscle of an attacker, they continue to penetrate and have been found in just about any organ of any porcupine predator: stomach wall, liver, lungs and kidneys. Such quills sound like the perfect defence mechanism, but it’s the details that fascinate.

For one thing, how does the porcupine disengage from an enemy it has just plastered with quills if the barbs’ structure makes quills difficult to extract? After all, the quills are attached to the porcupine too. It’s a serious issue, because if enough quills are embedded in an enemy, the force required to pull away from them may exceed the weight of the porcupine. But evolution, having undoubtedly sacrificed many porcupines in the course of working this out, has the solution. When the animal smacks its target, the initial impact actually drives the quills back deeper into the porcupine, breaking the links in which the quill is seated. Then separation is easy.

A PORCUPINE QUILL PENETRATES HUMAN
SKIN BETTER THAN A HYPODERMIC NEEDLE
AND IT WILL CAUSE LESS TISSUE DAMAGE…
AT LEAST UNTIL YOU TRY TO PULL IT OUT

What’s more surprising is that the barbs on the quill also make it easier to penetrate the flesh of an animal. This seems odd, because as the quill enters, the barbs should be squeezed against the shaft of the quill. It isn’t obvious why that should aid penetration, but the experimental data are unambiguous. A team led by Jeffrey Karp at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compared the performance of porcupine quills with hypodermic needles, quills with the barbs sanded off, quills from the African porcupine (whose quills have no barbs) and even artificial quills fashioned from polyurethane. Careful measurements of the penetration force needed for all these showed conclusively that barbed quills penetrate most easily, even better than a standard 18-gauge hypodermic needle. Related to that ease is the fact that the barbed quills cause less tissue damage on entering.

The secret seems to be how the stress of entering flesh is distributed. The team argues that because stress is concentrated around the barbs, the necessity of ripping open an entire circle of flesh is unnecessary, just like a serrated knife edge cuts more easily than a smooth edge. The results are obvious in photomicrographs of cut surfaces: barbed quills cut much more smoothly with less tearing of flesh.

Porcupine

Karp’s team have biomimicry on their minds: they’re working on an improved hypodermic needle that would have the ease of penetration of the barbed quill (without the difficulty of withdrawing it). They’re also thinking of a “biomimetic patch,” something to remain in place over tissues as they heal. In this case, both attributes of barbed quills would be important, especially the resistance to detachment.

At the same time, there are biological questions, like why does the North American porcupine have barbed quills while its African cousin doesn’t? The main predators of the African porcupine are formidable enough, including lions, hyenas and large birds of prey. Is there something different or more intense about the predatory pressure on our local porkies that would encourage barbed quills? In fact, although they seem like they should be more effective than barbless quills, there are several efficient porcupine killers in North America, especially the fisher. Barbed quills are a sophisticated deterrent, but not quite perfect.

Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today

 

Rewilding 101: Should We or Shouldn’t We Rewild Landscapes?

Urbanization, biodiversity loss, climate change – human impact has undeniably taken its toll on the planet.

We’ve lost hundreds of species. Can we rewild landscapes and bring back species that are no longer here?

Let’s cover the basics. What is rewilding?

Rewilding means bringing back qualities that have been lost, restoring an area of land to its natural state and possibly reintroducing species that had been driven out or exterminated.

What’s the difference between conservation and rewilding?

Conservation focuses on protecting and restoring current habitats and wildlife populations. It’s almost like hitting “pause” for these species. Whereas rewilding emphasizes the restoration of habitat and wildlife species that have been driven out.

One of the most famous rewilding projects is the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1990. The wolves changed the course of some rivers, stabilized deer and elk populations, helped make healthier riverbanks that suffered from less erosion and so much more.

What about Canada?


In Canada, we are lucky to still have many areas untouched and considered “wild”. However, these areas used to have species that thrived for many years, but may not exist in the region at all anymore.

grizzly bear

For example, Grizzly Bears used to live across all the Prairies. It is said that the first Grizzly Bear to ever be seen by a European explorer was in eastern Saskatchewan. Now there isn’t a Grizzly Bear in sight in that neck of the woods.

Decision makers in Banff reintroduced Plains Bison to the Rocky Mountains last summer, which have been long gone for about a century.

Can rewilding work for these species? Should we even consider it?

There are many questions that need to be asked when rewilding landscapes with species that have been long gone and many will be unanswered, as we simply do not know everything. Should we rewild species in Canada that haven been gone for a while? We’d have to be prepared to have species live in all kinds of landscapes, even it means it’s a bit closer to home. Because as you know, there is no such thing as a border or personal property line for wildlife species.

It’s certainly a conundrum and you could really make a case for either side.

wetland

The pros of rewilding in Canada:

  • Helping to reduce a mass extinction by giving nature a chance to reestablish its natural state of abundance and biodiversity. In truth, we would never be able to reverse the sixth mass extinction, but rewilding could make a small dent in reducing it.
  • Maintaining a piece of the Canadian identity. Each wildlife species has an intrinsic value in Canada, knowing they still exist in Canada will help maintain a piece of Canada as we know it.
  • Giving Canadians an opportunity to observe species in their natural setting.
  • Fighting climate change. For example, every tree planted in a rewilding project absorbs as much as 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year.
  • Inspiring a generation to love nature and increase well-being.
  • Helping prevent natural disasters like flooding, soil erosion and more.

coyote

The cons of rewilding in Canada:

  • Impacting property. Some property owners around the rewilding sites may suffer from rewilding. For example, introducing predatory species likes wolves’ increases the risk of losing livestock for farmers.
  • Planning the land requirements for rewilding projects. It would take a lot of planning to decide the areas to rewild from countryside to city.
  • Gambling that it’d work. It is not always clear if extirpated species will do well if placed back in a previous environment.

What can you do to rewild your property?

The easiest and simplest way to do your part and help rewild is to plant native trees, flowers, shrubs and more in your backyard. Help create habitats for bats, butterflies, birds, and so much more. Take part in restoring wetlands by removing invasive plants.

What does the Canadian Wildlife Federation think of rewilding?

Well, it depends. It’s complicated and there are no right or wrong answers. We are more interested in restoring habitats and keeping the species we currently have at healthy population levels than reintroducing species that are already gone for centuries.

It is proven to be much more effective (in terms of cost, effort and success) to prevent wildlife or habitat loss than to restore or rewild it.

We want to hear from you!

What do you think about rewilding? How far back in time should rewilding go? Do we bring back species from last century or millennial? Let us know in the comments below!

Herbs for Wildlife — Planting Edible Herbs for You and Wild Neighbours!

Each year I grow herbs, mainly for me but a little for wildlife, too.

For my part, I enjoy their fragrance when rubbing leaves between my fingers. I enjoy seeing their varied colours and textures on the deck and in the garden beds. And, of course, I enjoy tasting their lovely flavours.

There is something so satisfying about making a meal and simply popping outside to pick fresh basil for a pizza, parsley for a salad or lemon thyme for tea. I also like to dry my own herbs so I have lovely vibrant green herbs in my jars during the winter rather than the brownish herbs you often find in stores.

hoverfly herb

But I also get satisfaction when I leave some stems to go to flower as I know their tiny blooms are useful for loads of pollinators. From flower flies to little blue bees, they all come and work busily amongst my flowers.

I have a large oregano patch that has prolific clusters of pinky purple flowers that always seems to be full of insects. I tend to leave most of the patch alone, harvesting only a section of it for myself. But even a small pot of basil with a few flowers can help our insect allies.

The Caterpillar Connection

swallowtail caterpillar herb

Then there are plants like dill, fennel and parsley that are not only useful for their flowers but Black Swallowtail caterpillars enjoy the leaves as much as we do. If you are willing to share your plant then you will likely get to enjoy the experience of young caterpillars growing and then the final stage of a magnificent butterfly to grace your garden, even if it is only for a short time.

In this case, if you are concerned about not having any leaves for yourself, you can grow or buy extra plants or start a second crop a few weeks after you planted the first. If you are buying plants, you can always keep a few plants in a screened in area if you have one.

Of course, it’s best if you have lots of nectar plants for the adult butterflies to enjoy. Include annuals such as zinnias and calendula or perennials like milkweeds, Echinaceas, Monardas (Wild Bergamot and Bee Balm) and Joe-pye Weeds.

Growing Herbs

Growing herbs can be quite simple as most are happy with a big enough pot in full sun. Be sure to water daily, especially for plants like Basil and those in smaller pots that dry out more easily. Some will like fertilizing so add a bit of compost to your soil mix when planting.

bee herb

When it turns cold, some herbs survive the winter in my garden, like Oregano and Lemon Balm. Tender plants, however, need to come inside to a sunny window sill in order to live another year.

The Importance of Proper Window Placement

As the days are shorter in the winter, the sun becomes more important than ever. I’ve learned the hard way that I just don’t have the windows suited to help them all survive the cold for seven months. In one house I didn’t have enough space with windows that get full sun. In another house I had the window but with a baseboard heater below which meant my plants were between extremes of temperature, overriding the lovely sunny spot. So typically, I only bring inside my one Rosemary plant. The rest, like Basil and Thyme, I start from scratch each year.

Learn more about edible plants and how to garden for wildlife.

Cheaters in the Wild

How does monogamy work in the wild?

Can monogamy really exist in the wild? Most animals wouldn’t even attempt to stay faithful to one partner, but three per cent of mammals like to settle down with their one true love. That said, researchers are finding that even the most committed pairs might have flings on the side. Meet the wildlife with roaming eyes.

The Nearly Committed

Some animals are socially monogamous, meaning they might pick one partner for life but they’ve been known to cheat every so often.

Beavers

beaver

Beavers choose a mate for life and work hard on their relationships. Both males and females take on responsibility when they have young and they are so attached that they will stay together as a team until one of the partners dies. That said, beavers have been known to have affairs. But even a wandering eye can’t break up this team.

Wolves

Wolves breed about once a year in the wild. They’ll often choose one mate and stay true to them for many years, until one of the partners dies. However, sometimes they’ll abandon their mate if they are past their prime and can no longer procreate.

Prairie Voles

vole

Prairie Voles are like the poster child of monogamy in animals. These small rodents, which occupy the grasslands of Canada, create an unbreakable bond with one mate and are often attached at the hip until one or the other dies. They’re also amazing partners – they both take lead roles raising their young and they spend time grooming each other too.

It’s rare to find Prairie Voles rolling in the hay with another mate, but one study found that 10 per cent of male Prairie Voles cheated on their mates when presented with another female. That said, they’re pretty loyal mates. Fewer than 20 per cent of Prairie Voles will seek another partner after their one true love dies.

Don’t Tie Me Down!

It’s pretty rare to find mammals that are monogamous. Most will mate with multiple partners and some are even polygamous.

Bottlenose Dolphin

bottlenose dolphin

Dolphins are known for being incredibly social animals. Their pods can range from 12 to 1,000 individuals! These marine mammals would never bother to be monogamous; they’d much prefer to share their love. When a female strikes a male’s fancy, he’ll swim up to her and nuzzle away until she gives him the green light.

Walruses

walrus ice floe arctic

Male walruses have a huge harem of female walruses, called cows. The male will mate with all the cows by luring them special vocalizations. Underwater the sounds can sound like clicks or even bells and on land they sound more like whistles. They’re also awfully protective of their harem, challenging any male that gets too close to a cow with loud roars.

A Good Start for Monarchs

The overwintering Monarch population in Mexico has increased. Let’s help them when they make their trip home to Canada!

The monarch butterfly boasts a 4,000 kilometre migratory trek – that’s 95 marathons! They begin their journey in the north, at the end of summer or early autumn. While western Monarchs aim to overwinter in California’s pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees, Monarchs east of the Rockies head to Mexico’s oyamel fir forests for the winter months.

Losses and Gains

The overall Monarch population has declined about 90 per cent since the 1990s. The Monarch was assessed as Endangered in Canada in 2016 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC).  The federal government has not yet decided whether to accept this recommendation and list the species officially as Endangered.

However, a recent count has shown that after years of declines, the number of Monarchs in the Mexican wintering area has increased.

© Donna Cook

“The latest assessments in Mexico show that 14 colonies of overwintering butterflies occupied a total area of 6.05 hectares of the oyamel fir forest,” says Carolyn Callaghan, Senior Conservation Biologist, Terrestrial Wildlife with the Canadian Wildlife Federation “This is a 144 per cent increase over the 2018 result, and the highest area recorded since 2006.”

The World Wildlife Fund Mexico in collaboration with partner organizations has been conducting the annual assessment of the oyamel fir forest since 1995.

The observed increase is thought to be due to favorable weather conditions across the eastern range throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2018. It may also be due in part to recent widespread and large-scale efforts across the US to restore thousands of hectares with milkweed and nectar plants.

“This is a much-needed and promising result indicating that Monarch did have the good year that many of us observed in southern Canada. However, millions of hectares of Monarch habitat have been lost in recent decades due to increases in herbicide use, changes in agriculture and other development. If positive Monarch population trends are to continue, then Canada needs to do its part in improving Monarch habitat at a landscape scale.”

Canadian Habitat is Key

A recent study using stable isotopes showed that a significant percentage of the Monarchs overwintering in Mexico originated in southern Canada. Yet Canada lags far behind in recovery efforts for the beleaguered species, says Callaghan.

Habitat restoration is already happening across the United States, where thousands of hectares of roadsides and utility corridors are being planted with milkweed and other nectar-bearing wildflowers to act as both breeding areas and fuel stops for migrating butterflies. State and federal departments of transportation, energy and agriculture are all actively involved.

The roadsides and utility corridors are also mowed and sprayed less, providing cost savings as well as crucial habitat for Monarch and many other pollinating insects. And now governments in the US are providing support for farmers to grow milkweed and nectaring plants to help the Monarch recover.

“CWF and dedicated partners are working hard to improve and increase habitat for Monarch in eastern Ontario,” she says. “We are hoping to expand our pilot project to help restore more of the migration network in southern Canada. With support from the Ontario Trillium Foundaton and the partnership of HydroOne, Lanark County, and the National Capital Commission, we are making habitat gains. With the partnership from the federal and provincial governments, we can play our part in restoring the Monarch migration network across the whole breeding range.” And that really would be good news for Monarchs.

Learn more about how CWF is helping the Monarch Butterfly and how you can get involved.

Hola Monarcha!

Guest blogger Donna Cook is a nature interpreter who writes about her recent visit to the Monarch Butterflies’ overwintering grounds in Mexico.

Lying down in a high mountain meadow looking up at the sky, we are thrilled to see thousands of Monarch Butterflies flying in a stream above us.

Orange, black and white wings flutter along in a light breeze heading for the large fir trees where the Monarchs roost from late October through March of each year. Fellow visitors speak in hushed voices so as not to disturb the insects and there is a sense of excitement in the air.

Like many Canadians, we love visiting Mexico. This February we headed inland to see where the Monarch butterflies overwinter.

Mariposa Monarcha

The butterflies are called “Mariposa Monarcha” in Spanish — a fittingly beautiful name for a brilliant insect that has an incredible life cycle.

Like us, they have flown all the way from Canada. Unlike us, they have had to dodge hurricanes, find enough food to fuel their flight and deal with changing weather. Monarch numbers have been decreasing over the past two decades and there have been calls to add them to the Canadian endangered species list.

Cerro Pelόn

© Donna Cook

There are a handful of Monarch Reserves in Mexico. We decided to go to Cerro Pelόn first. It is one of the least visited areas.

Horses lead us along a steep trail through the forest passes and dense patches of wildflowers. Our mounts stop for us to dismount and we walk to the roosting trees. I imagine the butterflies feeding on these colourful plants, storing up energy for the journey north.

The roosting trees are large with millions of butterflies clinging to the branches. The branches droop with the weight of so many insects. A few roosting trees are visible from the trail and I wonder how many there are in total.

We continue walking uphill to an open meadow where we lay down to watch the skies. Here, about 50 other visitors share the experience.

It was a spectacular day. We came down from the trail covered in dust and walking on air.

El Rosario

© Donna Cook

Our second destination was El Rosario. This is where thousands of visitors arrive each weekend from Mexico City and abroad.  As we hike from the village to reach the trailhead, a couple of local kids skip along beside us. They greet us with “Hola” then sing a Monarch song. We smile as we share their enthusiasm.

The Monarch reserves are important to the local communities, providing them jobs and income. These kids are hoping to sell us butterfly souvenirs to help support their families.

As we hike into the reserve, it appears that the old growth trees have been logged nearly all the way to the roosting trees. Deforestation is one of the threats to the Monarchs’ survival here. New trees have been planted and there is a determined effort to protect these wintering grounds.

The environment at El Rosario is similar and there are more butterflies here. We are fortunate as it is mid-week and the crowds are thin. Butterflies engulf us and some land on the people in the group. Cameras are clicking, and binoculars are passed around. Another amazing day!

Regresando al norte

We will return to Canada, but this generation of Monarchs will not. They will fly north in April and find wild milkweed plants to lay eggs on. The next generation will continue the trip reproducing along the way.

The grandchildren of the butterflies we saw in Mexico will arrive in southern Canada in late May. I plan to welcome them here by planting some native milkweed and wildflowers to help them along.

Say “Hola Monarcha” in your garden too! Learn how with CWF’s Gardening for Wildlife.

 

 

 

 

UPDATED: A New Start for the North Atlantic Right Whale?

Great news for the North Atlantic Right Whale.

We are approaching the end of the calving season for Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. But this year there is good news: as of February 13, 2019, there are six new calves in the population!

This is a wonderful discovery. Let’s not forget 2017, when 17 of these whales were killed and the subsequent calving season when no calves were born.

New Food Sources = New Hope?

A trio of blue whales observed while showing an extraordinary and rare behavior. © David Gaspard | CWF Photo Club
A trio of blue whales observed in the St. Lawrence River near Matane, Québec while showing an extraordinary and rare behavior. © David Gaspard | CWF Photo Club

These discoveries offer another important hope. Since 2010, Right Whales have been reducing their use of traditional summer feeding grounds (the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin). It is speculated that this is due to the  reduced quality of food found there. Conversely, they have become more common in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, possibly because they are seeking new areas to feed. Did they find a better food source?

At first glance, it appears that four of these six mothers were feeding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 and two in 2018. This is great news because many scientists have been concerned that the animals would not be able to find enough food in this non-traditional habitat to support reproduction.

The Cost of Pregnancy

The distinctive v-shaped blow of the mother and calf North Atlantic Right Whale stands out against the steel-blue of the sea and sky. © Allan McDonald
The distinctive v-shaped blow of the mother and calf North Atlantic Right Whale stands out against the steel-blue of the sea and sky. © Allan McDonald | CWF Photo Club

What they eat is directly tied to their ability to reproduce. Becoming pregnant and raising a calf requires a large amount of energy.

Female Right Whales stop feeding at the end of the summer and swim to the southern U.S. to give birth in the winter. During this time, they provide milk to their babies (for about 12 months!) and slowly swim back to their feeding grounds in Canada the following summer where they can finally eat again.

To do all this means they must start their journey south good and fat. It requires so much energy that most adult Right Whales only give birth once every two to three years.

What This Means for These Whales — And Us

These highly endangered animals are doing their part to survive in this world: they are finding enough food to keep having babies.

The rest is up to us. This is not a small challenge!

Lobster traps drying in the sun near Bonavista, NFLD. @ Megan Lorenz | CWF Photo Club
Lobster traps drying in the sun near Bonavista, NFLD. @ Megan Lorenz | CWF Photo Club

Our activities in the ocean — particularly fishing and shipping — seriously injure and kill many North Atlantic Right Whales every year.

Canada took great efforts to reduce risk from these activities to these whales in 2018 by introducing important fishing and shipping regulations. This appears to have had some success because we saw zero mortalities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since the regulations were invoked (there were 12 Right Whale deaths in Canadian waters in 2017 alone).

But the danger is not gone.

There is much we need to learn, and much more we need to change in these activities if we want to continue to benefit from our oceans without carelessly eliminating a species from our planet.

Learn more about the 2018 marine conservation regulations.

Devastating Downfall for Western Monarchs: A Harbinger of Things to Come?

All along the California coast in fall and winter, there are places you can visit where colonies of adult Monarch butterflies overwinter.

At the ocean’s edge, dozens or even hundreds of the brilliant orange butterflies gather, lighting up the coastal vegetation. I have always intended to visit with my kids. Sadly, recent survey results suggest that it would be best to hurry.

Many people are aware that Monarchs overwinter in Mexico. And this is true: the Mexican overwintering site contains mainly the Monarchs that migrate from breeding areas in central and eastern North America.

 

Monarch migration map
Map of the Monarch Butterfly migration. There are two distinct migrations: western and eastern. The western migration terminates on the California coast (see red highlighted area). Map © Xerces Society

Lesser-Known Western Monarchs

Much less known to Canadians is the fact that there is also a western migratory population of Monarchs. Most of these Monarchs breed on western species of milkweed as far north as southern BC, Oregon and Idaho, and aggregate every fall in hundreds of small clusters of coastal Pacific forest from northern California to Mexico.

Monarchs breed on western species of milkweed as far north as Oregon and Idaho.
Monarchs breed on western species of milkweed as far north as Southern B.C., Oregon and Idaho.

By November, most western butterflies have arrived on the coast and have formed stable colonies that will persist until February.  Every year at American Thanksgiving, the Xerces Society coordinates volunteers to conduct a census of these overwintering populations.

“Devastating” Downfall in Numbers

western monarchs on pink flower

Preliminary census results for the 2018 western Monarch counts are nothing short of alarming.

Counts this past Thanksgiving showed that California’s overwintering butterfly population has declined 86% over the previous year, which was already one of the lowest on record.

In the 1980s, the California coast hosted over 4 million butterflies. Early estimates from 2018 data are projecting just 30,000. Words like “catastrophic” and “devastating” are emerging from normally-restrained senior scientists.

Why Are Western Monarchs Declining?

What has caused such a tremendous decline? The precise reasons for the 2018 decline are unclear, but California’s devastating wildfire season, combined with historic droughts in the west could be to blame.

Wildfires in California
The 2018 wildlife season was the most destructive wildfire season on record in California. Approximately 8,527 fires burned over an area of 1,893,913 acres (766,439 ha).

The uncomfortable truth is that Monarchs across their entire North American range have faced many unrelenting threats for at least two decades. Loss of larval milkweed plants due to herbicide and pesticide use, crop intensification, and climate-related changes have already brought Monarch numbers across North America to all-time lows.

Foretelling the Future

monarchs-flying-blue-sky

Do the western survey results predict the future of the eastern migratory population? Time will tell.

Every February, scientists at MonarchWatch estimate the amount of area in the Mexican Oyamel fir forests that is occupied by overwintering Monarchs from central and eastern North America.  This population has also declined by around 90% since record keeping began.  

In 2018, many of us observed an excellent summer for Monarch in eastern Canada. But migration is risky, and intense tropical storms or prolonged drought during the fall migration can lead to high mortality.  We are both hopeful and anxious about this year’s results.

Working Towards Restoration for Monarchs

monarch restoration sign

Still, at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we are not intending to sit and wait for the news. It is unthinkable that a beloved species that was previously abundant could be facing a perilous future. In 2018, with the help of the Ontario Trillium Fund, CWF launched a pilot habitat restoration project. With fantastic partners including Hydro One, Lanark County and the National Capital Commission, we are restoring 10 acres of native meadow habitat along roadsides and rights of way. Four sites are prepared, and are ready for seeding with native plants in the spring of 2019.

It’s a small start, but we have a vision to expand habitat along linear migratory networks through southern Ontario and beyond.

We Must Act Now

monarch-on-child-hand

One thing is clear: the Monarch across North America is in  a precarious situation, and it will take all hands on deck to prevent its further decline.

If we are to succeed, it will be due to hard work and commitments by all levels of government, industry partners, the agricultural community and private citizens.  That is the best way to ensure that our children and grandchildren will be able to witness the spectacle of Monarch migration and overwintering.

It can’t wait anymore.

Stay tuned for further updates on the status of Monarch Butterfly and CWF’s Monarch Habitat Restoration Project.

Prophets of Loss

Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal the big picture.

Consider a recent paper in Nature about how plants in the tundra, the coldest ecosystem in the world, are growing taller now as the climate warms.

What are the implications? Will the taller plants absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting some of the warming? Or will they help heat up the soil even more in the winter as they increase decomposition rates, releasing yet more of the massive amount of carbon the soil stores? So far, that’s unknown. What is known is there are massive changes afoot in an ecosystem that is warming more quickly than any other part of the planet. And with that comes a pressing need for the world’s species to adapt swiftly to new conditions if they are to survive.

Sometimes larger truths are made apparent by putting all sorts of little trends together into a sweeping analysis. Take the latest Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund, published in October. Its authors looked at nearly 17,000 individual populations of animals with backbones — mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. In all, that amounted to about 4,000 species. In just 44 years, from 1970 to 2014, their populations dropped in size by an average of 60 per cent.

Put another way, human activities have halved those populations — on average — in less than 50 years. In the densely biologically diverse South and Central America and the Caribbean, the average population drop is 89 per cent.

The mechanism? As the WWF puts it, it’s still mainly guns, nets and bulldozers. But now, it’s also heat, toxins and invasive creatures taking over.

That’s a lot of death. And it’s swift.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which compiles the Red List of endangered species, also came up with some new numbers in 2018. Of the 93,000 or so species it has assessed, more than 26,000 have populations so severely diminished that they are at risk of extinction. That’s more than a quarter.

Again, that’s a tremendous amount of death. Not only that, but today, 872 of the species we once shared the planet with have gone extinct, and another 1,700 are on the brink.

This matters because we know that sometimes, conditions on the planet spiral out of control; things change so swiftly that species don’t have the chance to adapt like the plants of the tundra are doing. The result: a mass extinction. That phenomenon has happened just five times over the 4.6 billion years that Earth has been here. The last one, 65 million years ago, killed off the dinosaurs.

So the great question is this: Does all the death that the Red List and the World Wildlife Fund are chronicling mean we are in the throes of the sixth mass extinction?

Paul R. Ehrlich says yes. Ehrlich is the Stanford University biologist who came to fame in the 1960s with his book The Population Bomb. Back then he predicted humans would overwhelm the Earth’s ability to support us. Only a technological revolution in agriculture could avert disaster. Now in his 80s, Ehrlich along with two co-authors has produced a new analysis. Human population numbers have kept growing exponentially. But in the process, we have wrought what he and his two co-authors call “biological annihilation.” Ehrlich says it’s not enough to look at which species are close to extinction: we need to look broadly at what has happened to different populations in the last century and what happened to their habitat.

Their analysis looked only at land-dwellers with backbones — terrestrial vertebrates. Even in species the Red List considers to be of least concern, they found high death rates: ranges have shrunk, some local populations have been wiped out, and remaining populations have seen sharp declines though they don’t yet rank as endangered. Ehrlich calls this “population decay.”

The point is that the planet is losing the exquisitely evolved networks that support life as a whole, and with it we are losing the planet’s collective genetic memory. And the question is, what if, as the planet changes so fast, species need that vanishing genetic information to survive?

Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today