HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – The monarch butterfly is Alabama’s official state insect. Its black and orange markings are unmistakable, but may not be so easy to spot forever. Scientists say the migratory Monarch is officially endangered.
“It is a red flag that we should be concerned about,” Ecologist and UAH Associate Professor Matthew Niemiller said.
He is not the only one in North Alabama disheartened by the news. The Botanical Garden’s Purdy Butterfly House is the largest open-air butterfly house in the United States. Rebecca Turk is their Director of Learning and Public Engagement. The monarch is one of the butterfly house’s biggest stars.
“A lot of people recognize it. It’s beautiful in color but also because of its migratory, it’s well known and researched because of that as well,” she said. “The monarch is one of the species in here that makes the space magical but also lets us educate on the importance of our mission connecting people to plants and their role in our ecosystem.”
The news of their endangerment comes from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The union lists the migratory monarch on its ‘red list,’ meaning it’s only two steps from extinction.
Niemiller said dramatic alterations to their environment, like climate change and habitat destruction, play a role in the monarchs having a tougher time making successful migrations from places like Canada to Mexico.
“Where they winter, a lot of the trees they roost in have been lost to logging. Here during the summertime, they rely critically on milkweeds. So if we lose the milkweed through clearing the land, using herbicides, that’s going to impact the butterflies as well,” he said.
The news, he said, gives him pause when it comes to thinking about the future.
“The monarch butterfly is one of the most charismatic butterfly species we know about. The fact that it’s facing these challenges gives me pause when thinking about all the other invertebrates, the other insects,” Niemiller said. “The majority of life on this planet doesn’t have a backbone. If we start losing many of those species, we’re kind of entering a stage here where there could be a point of no return. We won’t really understand [what] the impacts could be, particularly down the road here 20 years [or] 30 years.”
Turk said if pollinator insects like the monarch were to reach extinction, it would affect the entire ecosystem, from predator food sources to the crops people eat.
Being so interconnected is not always a bad thing though. There are ways regular humans can help pad the population. One of them is especially simple: plant milkweed.
“Milkweed is their food source, so planting that in home landscapes and community gardens would help increase and make sure part of that ecosystem is healthy and helping them migrate through,” Turk said.
It’s a small task to help a big member of the butterfly family.
“Easy to grow, beautiful to have in a home landscape, and it’s really fun to see when the monarchs come,” she said.