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Monarch butterflies make really good neighbors

JAY MATHER
  • Jay Mather

If you're tuned in, you know our western monarch butterfly—the only butterfly in North America that migrates to keep from freezing its butt off—is in a heap of trouble. The species just doesn't have the necessary food to make it from egg to adult, then to slurp nectar to make the long voyage to California.

But that's only part of the story. In order for the species to survive, they have to have the food to make the journey back north and breed. The wintering individual won't get back there; it'll be about the 5th generation of that individual's family that finally gets back to the milkweed and nectaring flowers of the north.

One very special person knows that story very well: Amanda Egertson, the Deschutes Land Trust stewardship director, who manages and protects the DLT's lands, doing everything possible to make sure it's used for its best conservation qualities.

When the current monarch conservation work got started, one of the first agencies to start spreading the word in 2014 was Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates, a grassroots group collaborating on a whirlwind of exciting community projects, such as:

Educational and hands-on milkweed and monarch workshops with Tom Landis

Creation and maintenance of many community monarch waystations, the largest of which is currently being constructed at the Coyote Trails School of Nature in Medford.

Native milkweed seed propagation, packaging and distribution (although not yet on a large scale)

Proactive community collaboration and outreach (such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bear Creek Watershed, local nature centers, churches and other community partners)

Responsible controlled monarch rearing for release and/or tagging.

Egertson, along with her two children, Lucy and Eli, attended one of the workshops put on by Ron Landis of SOMA. After learning all there was to know about monarch conservation, she went at it head-heels.

She put in seeds and planted milkweed plants in the DLT's Camp Polk and Whychus Canyon preserves, as well as her own backyard. She's also been getting into rearing monarchs with her kids, tagging the adults with markers supplied by David James, a professor at Washington State University.

James established a marking system by which a nickel-sized colored tag with ID data is placed on the lower side of the migrating butterfly's hind wing. He established a monarch rearing facility at Walla Walla Prison which, with the aid of inmates, has helped James track thousands of butterflies, and—with the aid of a team of citizen scientists from all over the Northwest—locate their wintering grounds in California.

Egertson got very serious about wanting to have adult monarchs for her, her children and the Land Trust to release, so she contacted Chris Jensen at the Bend Seed Extractory, working with him and other staff to collect monarch eggs that had just been laid by a female visiting their monarch way station.

Egertson eventually ended up with 15 eggs, placing them on her milkweed to hatch and grow. In the wild, only about 2 to 5 percent of monarch eggs make it to adults due to parasites, predation and disease, but because Egertson was such an energetic and watchful monarch-raiser—often setting her alarm to go off at various times during the night to make sure her "babies" were safe—all 15 made it to adults.

Soon, the monarch caterpillars were, literally, eating themselves out of house and home. It became obvious her plants weren't going to last long enough for the monarch larva to finish developing. That problem was solved when she noticed a neighbor with a backyard devoted to milkweed as a monarch way station. The neighbor not only happily agreed to help, but they all became fast friends.

One of the most moving elements of Egertson's work with monarchs took place when she visited one of her colleagues, a dear friend and longtime Land Trust volunteer, USFS researcher Paul Edgerton, who was suffering from a cancer that recently took his life.

She took an adult, tagged female monarch with her to show Edgerton and release at his home. After Edgerton laid back to rest, she and Paul's wife, Sue, took the butterfly, named "Mariposa" (the nickname they had been calling Amanda for over a decade) out into the yard and released it. 

Instead of immediately flying off on its journey south, as most monarchs do upon release, that butterfly flew up into a pine tree in the yard and perched for over an hour.

This provided the entire family the opportunity to see this very special insect, and for Paul's wife to say, in the announcement of his going out among the stars: "A wonderful, gentle, loving soul soared gently to heaven today on the wings of a monarch butterfly; he is hiking the hills of heaven, fishing the lakes, loving his parents, sister, niece and his beloved dogs. We miss him and love him very much and are privileged to have helped him peacefully on his way, with so much love.....he ferried across the river with a full crew sending him off with all our love and admiration."

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