Friday, January 31, 2014

The Situation is Growing Dire for the Monarchs of the Plains


Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson
The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas is very much a book about what I encountered on a trip down U.S. 83 in September 2009. The people, the scenery and the history.
And unfortunately, one thing I encountered a lot during those two weeks were Monarch butterflies. Or to be more specific, my 1999 Mazda Protégé encountered them.
The numerous butterflies whose lives I accidentally terminated as my car sliced through the prairie air became the subject of a brief passage in the book. It is one of two only two excerpts I have released so far when I posted it in this blog Sept. 16, 2013. (Read it below). The butterflies in the fall begin a long migration from as far north as Canada down to Mexico, as the excerpt explains. They funnel over the southern part of Texas that roughly corresponds with Highway 83 as it travels from Laredo to Brownsville.
One angle I did not address in the passage was all the additional obstacles other than cars Monarchs encounter as they make their long trip.
They end up in a valley in Mexico, which has become a tourist destination over the last few years. Unfortunately, during the last two decades, the amount of acres that the Monarchs cover after they reach their destination has shrunk dramatically from 45 acres of forest to 1.6 acres.
Why their numbers are collapsing is the key question.
Loss of habitat in Mexico seems to be one reason. They also rely on milkweed to lay their eggs and large-scale farming in Canada and the United States is killing off this native plant.
The article says they won’t go extinct, but the whole amazing migration where a single butterfly travels 3,000 miles to make it to Mexico may end. That would be a shame.
Last fall, I met two girls and their mother outside my local supermarket who were selling brownies and cookies. They were only $1 each so I as I bought one, I asked why they were fundraising for. They were going to set up a Monarch butterfly habitat in their backyard. I think I had nine bucks on me. I bought a lot more brownies, and then just gave them the few dollars I had left.
Here is a link to a website that says it will mail you free milkweed seeds for the asking, or for a small donation. I plan on planting some in the spring with my daughter in a small patch of wooded land where I live (whether my condo association realizes it or not!) I hope others do the same.
Maybe that will make up in some small way for the carnage my car bumper and windshield caused back in 2009.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, now available at To learn how to order signed copies, message him at stewmag (a)

A Journey Interrupted: Monarch Butterflies on the High Plains Originally posted Sept. 16, 2013 
The following is a brief excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas. It takes place just south of Minot, N.D., September 2009.

A Monarch butterfly flitters out of nowhere, hits my windshield, and tumbles away to the pavement.
I wince.
One can avoid hitting a squirrel, rabbit or pheasant. But when a butterfly flies in front of a car, there’s nothing that can be done about it. They hit the windshield and fall on the road like dead leaves in autumn.
This isn’t the first time I had struck a Monarch since I left on the trip. There were others. The previous evening at a gas station in Minot, as the pump was filling up the tank, I took a sopping wet windshield cleaner and started to remove the layer of bug splotches covering the glass.
Making my way around the car, I noticed a perfectly preserved Monarch on the grill, just above the bumper. Its wings were fluttering and for a moment, I thought it was still alive, but it was just the wind. I gently removed it.
The Monarchs I have been inadvertently slaughtering are also traveling south. The orange and black-winged Lepidoptera was traveling even farther than me, though. It’s believed that the Monarchs of the Northern Plains are the only species of butterfly to migrate. The one that hit my windshield was heading south to winter in the warm central mountains of Mexico. Highway 83 runs 1,885 miles.
It seems almost impossible to me that something so delicate intended to fly 1,000 miles beyond the road’s terminus. The migration begins in Canada around August and continues until the first frosts. 
The butterfly I killed would have stopped along the way to fill its abdomen with sunflower nectar, and made its way south, gliding on the winds as often as it could to preserve its strength. Like the route, it would have passed over South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and finally Texas, where it would meet up with millions of other Monarchs.
They all funnel over the South Texas borderlands, making their way to fir forests, 10,000 feet above sea level on the tops of transvolcanic mountains, where they spend the winter. They mate, and finally die from exhaustion. Their offspring begin the journey north around the second week of March. They lay their eggs along the way in South Texas. Through the spring and summer, each generation flies a little farther north until the great-great-great grand-Lepidoptera emerge from their cocoons in the fields of High Plains. It’s these offspring, the ones I’m encountering now, that begin the nearly 3,000 mile journey to Mexico.
This is why I wince when I strike a Monarch in North Dakota in early September.
I will kill dozens of them during the next two weeks, and I will mourn each and every one of them.
The grasshoppers. Not so much. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at

 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 

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