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Cracker Barrel: Threatened beauties

Those of us who have spent our lives here in the Midwest can’t help but harbor a special love for monarch butterflies. Of all the beautiful marvels of nature that grace our part of the world, monarchs have earned a place of deserved honor.

Along with lightning bugs, ice cream and just-ripened tomatoes, these elegant creatures define our summer days.

But all is not well. One recent study suggests that the long-term survival of the species may be in doubt. And according to an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg that appeared in the New York Times earlier this month, the plight of this extraordinary beauty is beyond question.

“For the past 15 years, “ writes Klinkenborg, “scientists have been watching monarch numbers plummet, as much as 81 percent between 1999 and 2010. They reached nearly catastrophic lows in the winter of 2009-2010 and have barely recovered since.”

As monarch lovers know, the butterflies migrate en masse (normally in October) from all over the Midwest and Northeast to a handful of high altitude sites in Mexico, where they winter in the protective shelter of fir trees. Come spring, the process and direction is reversed and they fly thousands of miles northward, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants.

Milkweed is the only plant a monarch caterpillar can eat — and therein lies the problem. It’s a plant that most farmers and other landowners consider a weed. Says Klinkenborg, “There is a direct parallel between the demise of milkweeds — killed by the herbicide glyphosate, which is sprayed by the millions of gallons on fields where genetically modified crops are growing — and the steady drop in monarch numbers.”

To be fair, the ongoing effort to eradicate milkweed isn’t the only cause of the monarch’s predicament. “Illegal logging in Mexico has reduced their winter habitat — an already vanishingly small area, which is itself being altered by the warming climate,” writes Klinkenborg.

“Ecotourists who come to witness the congregation of so many butterflies disturb the creatures they have come to see. But perhaps most damaging is the demise of milkweed.”

Which puts those of us here in the Midwest in a strange position, rather like Alice in Wonderland. After decades of working to stamp out milkweed, gardeners are now being encouraged to plant it in their gardens, and townships and counties are being asked to let it thrive in roadside ditches.

As Klinkenborg points out, what looks like agricultural success, purging bean and corn fields of milkweed and other allegedly noxious plants, turns out to be butterfly disaster. Which, when you think about it, is merely the latest in a long line of human interventions gone amok.

So what to do? The only sensible thing is to change course and cultivate milkweed, in the chastened hope that our efforts might keep the monarchs from disappearing.

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel