The monarch butterfly is one of the best recognized and most beloved insects in the world. This time of year, their black and orange wings can be seen fluttering about, gathering nectar in preparation for their impressive annual migration to Mexico. And flying more than 1,700 miles to wintering grounds requires a lot of preparation. Adult monarchs are looking for high-quality habitat with lots of nectar – especially nectar from native plants – and are finding it wing over wing at Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Sanctuary. Nectar plants, along with people working to protect monarch butterflies, are abundant at Goose Pond Sanctuary, especially during migration when monarch tagging occurs.
Monarch butterfly populations have declined dramatically over the last 25 years, with a loss of possibly 90% of the population. While this summer has been a great year for monarchs, their numbers are still significantly below historic levels.
One local non-profit with a reputation for being bird-focused is breaking the mold and helping protect Wisconsin’s monarchs in big ways. Madison Audubon owns and maintains nearly 2,000 acres of land that it has restored to native habitat, including lush and vibrant milkweed and nectar plant populations. Monarchs are attracted to these high-quality habitats, both for laying eggs and reproducing and also for fueling up for migration. Plants like stiff goldenrod, meadow blazing star, sawtooth sunflower, and more are in full bloom in the prairie, and monarchs are taking advantage of their deep nectar stores.
“Madison Audubon sanctuaries are free and open to all – including the many monarch butterflies that visit to use their abundant resources,” says Matt Reetz, executive director of Madison Audubon Society. Because many monarchs spend significant time in the prairies at Goose Pond Sanctuary, humans also benefit by visiting the property, seeing the vastness of the native landscape, and getting up close and personal with monarchs.
Another big way Madison Audubon works on monarch conservation is through annual monarch tagging events at the sanctuary. Members of the public are invited out to the sanctuary to participate in these events to learn about monarch ecology and migration, how to safely handle monarchs, and how tagging helps.
Monarch tagging involves placing a tiny sticker with a unique number on a monarch’s wing. Researchers have studied this process extensively and determined that the correct placement of the sticker combined with its minuscule weight and size does not negatively impact monarch flight, behavior, or migration. A released, tagged butterfly continues its journey south to wintering grounds in Mexico where tag numbers can be recorded. The data help scientists study migration patterns and success to contribute to the overall conservation of this iconic species. Tagging and releasing is safe for all of the butterflies, and is a fun, memorable, and educational activity for family members of all ages. These events typically result in over 1,000 monarchs being each year.
Finally, Madison Audubon is helping monarch butterflies by serving as a founding member and strong supporter of the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative, a group of agencies, industries, non-profits, and individuals working together to create a strategy for protecting monarch populations in Wisconsin. Madison Audubon staff members serve in communications and natural areas working groups and have created resources like the “Wisconsin’s Milkweeds” and “Top 11 Species for Monarchs” handouts, available for the public to download, use, and distribute.