National Geographic: Milkweed and Monarchs risk extinction

Entomologist Chip Taylor estimates more than a billion milkweed stems necessary to give monarchs a fighting chance

Steve (with mourning dove friend) explains how only Milkweed can save the Monarchs
  • Steve (with mourning dove friend) explains how only Milkweed can save the Monarchs

Steve Wampler became famous when he somehow scaled El Capitan in Yosemite even though he uses a wheelchair. On Friday September 17, 2010, with help from a support team, he became the first person with cerebral palsy ever to climb it.

Steve’s also a buddy, even though if you bring up man-created climate change, we’ll be at it for hours. He doesn’t believe in it. But when it comes to butterflies, that’s a different story. Because according to him, his garden used to host up to 1000 of them, flapping in to his patch of milkweed plants for a pit stop in Coronado on their way to Mexico, or on their way back up to Canada.

Today, he shows me his garden. Monarchs? None. “It’s not just here. There used to be millions roosting and hibernating in [places like] Pacific Grove,” he says. “Today it’s less than 40,000.”

Actually, it’s even worse. Last year’s Western Monarch Thanksgiving count found 28,429 butterflies. That’s an 85.2 percent fall from 2017; and a catastrophic 99.4 percent decline from the number of monarchs in California in the 1980s.

Steve’s one remaining Milkweed plant. Monarch caterpillars need them to survive

Steve’s one remaining Milkweed plant. Monarch caterpillars need them to survive

Reasons? Same old same old: Pesticides, herbicides, habitat loss. Steve picks up on the worst aspect, especially since the agricultural industry created herbicide and pesticide-resistant crops like corn. “Farmers have declared war on milkweed, the one plant Monarch caterpillars need to eat to grow,” he says. Plus, higher CO2 levels have reduced a natural toxin in milkweed that monarch caterpillars need to fight off parasites.

So we’re standing here, in Steve’s garden, where he created a jungle gym to train for Yosemite, looking at his one surviving milkweed plant. He shakes his head.

“A few years ago, it was crazy here. Matings, flutterings, branches covered in black and yellow. And eggs — the caterpillars grow a thousand times bigger than their egg in two weeks, feeding on milkweed — it was beautiful. Adults feeding on my nectar flowers. This year, nada.”

Brice Semmens, who’s a fisheries biologist at Scripps Oceanographic Institution and studies population dynamics, told National Geographic that to cut the risk of extinction by half, monarch populations must increase by at least 5 million butterflies. And Kansas University entomologist Chip Taylor estimates we need more than a billion milkweed stems to give monarchs a fighting chance.

But honestly, it all sounds beyond serious. “Death spiral?” I say.

“Probably,” says Steve. “You usually can’t lose 99 percent of your population and go on.” And of course, close behind monarchs, the threat extends to the bees and birds that depend on them.

We kinda stare at the milkweed plant. Then he sits up. “But we should fight anyway. So let’s start here! Start planting! Milkweed. Local milkweed that’s the right toxicity. In every garden! I want to make us the ilkweed capital of the world!”

He says he has a planter with 185 milkweed plugs in it.

“I’ll give’em away. Tell people to go to my website wamplerfoundation.org. I’ll give them away.”

An impossible rescue? Hey, the guy made it up El Capitan.

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