SFU professor launches study to protect monarch butterfly population

PHOTO: C Watts / Flickr

Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer 

PhD candidate Rodrigo Solis-Sosa and his team have launched conservation efforts to primarily  protect the eastern monarch butterfly species on North America’s east coast.

Their research focuses on testing different types of milkweed plant restoration along key migration patterns. They’ve found that restoring milkweed growth along the midwest of the United States is the most effective for encouraging population growth, as monarchs are bred in that area. This is to prevent the eastern population from declining as much as its western counterpart.

“The monarch only can lay eggs on [milkweed], so if we lose that plant, the monarch has no place to go,” said Solis-Sosa in an interview with The Peak. 

Solis-Sosa explained the biggest threats to milkweed growth are GMOs (genetically modified organisms) used in crops and herbicides across the midwest.

Solis-Sosa noted that the western monarch population had previously been affected by the intense use of GMOs in California, droughts, and wildfires — all destructive to western milkweed growth. “The GMOs on the agricultural industry were destroying milkweed in farmland.” Because of that, came fire and droughts — which negatively impacted the western population,  said Solis-Sosa. 

Another threat is illegal logging in Mexico. Monarch butterflies “gather in some very specific patches of forest. So, if there is logging on that forest, the protection that monarchs get from the forest — from winter storms — gets degraded, so their mortality increases,” said Solis-Sosa. 

Solis-Sosa’s study reported that to conserve the population, they need an additional 1.2 to 1.6 billion milkweed stems planted. The butterflies contribute to the ecosystem by pollinating wildflowers.

This paper may lead to more research, studying its compatibility to blend with different kinds of conservation strategies. “Ideally we want to give this a platform for more research to grow from,” said Solis-Sosa. 

Solis-Sosa has recently participated in workshops with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation — the environmental branch of the North American Free Trade Agreement — to discuss his findings. This allowed him and his team to work with the leading body on monarch conservation strategies.

He described his research as a part of “social ecological conservation.” A key aspect of what his team works on is calling on the general public to engage with monarch conservation. He explained that “we need to understand society to make our policies come true.” 

Their team’s website offers a variety of informational resources regarding monarch conservation strategies.