Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Mayor’s Monarch Pledge this week, making San Antonio the first city in the country to become a Monarch Champion in the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. The Mayor issued a proclamation announcing the initiative Wednesday evening at City Council Chambers.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads a proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by Nationa Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.
Mayor Ivy Taylor reads a proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by National Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

The special designation means San Antonio agrees to adopt all 24 specific actions suggested by NWF to support the declining Monarch butterfly migration. Actions range from citizen science projects and installing a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, to hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

NWF officials were “stunned” by San Antonio’s commitment, said Grace Barnett, NWF Monarch outreach coordinator who works out of Austin for the Washington, D.C. conservation group.

“No one expected a city to take on all of the potential actions associated with the Pledge,” Barnett said via email. NWF actually had to assemble a quick conference call on Monday to decide what to call the new category of support: Monarch Champion. Hopefully, the first of many more.

Until today, cities could adopt three of the 24 recommendations to qualify as a participant; they could adopt eight to join the “leadership circle.” And now, San Antonio has created the new category of Monarch Champion by adopting 100% of the actions.

Since the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge was launched September 18, 43 mayors across the country have committed to create habitat and encourage their citizens to do the same.

For those unaware, Monarch butterflies migrate each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City. At the beginning and end of their journey, they pass through the “Texas funnel,” making our part of the world especially strategic to their migration. San Antonio lies in the heart of that migratory path and often serves as the first stop on the migration north in the spring and as the last stop in the funnel south in the fall.

Monarch migration map
Monarch butterflies migrate through the Texas Funnel enroute to and from their roosting grounds in Mexico in the spring and fall. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically–by 80% from the 21-year average across North America.  Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

San Antonio’s status as a Monarch Champion has been a long time coming. Our unique geographic location, a special relationship with Mexico which is the winter home to the mariposa monarca, and our highly lauded San Antonio River Authority (SARA) Museum and Mission Reach restorations all set the stage for today’s news. (Remarkably, SARA by itself was already doing 17 of the 24 recommended items on the list. ) SAWS’ focus on native landscaping, which encourages pollinator friendly host and nectar plants over water guzzling turf, and a troupe of committed volunteers and grass roots efforts make San Antonio especially suited to live up to the Mayor’s Pledge.

Our community has long been active in Monarch butterfly and pollinator advocacy. Volunteers like Mary Kennedy, Kip Kiphart and Mobi Warren have worked tirelessly with the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) at Cibolo Nature Center and the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for years.

The MLMP, a citizen scientist initiative developed at the University of Minnesota, meticulously inventories natural cycles of milkweeds (the Monarch host plant), eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies. San Antonio’s Milkweed Patch, just a short walk south of the Pearl on the San Antonio River, serves an important inland urban monitoring site for overwintering Monarch butterfly caterpillars and has been the site of research conducted by some of the top Monarch scientists in the country, including Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia.

Tagged Monarch butterfly
Many of us in San Antonio tag Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some of us in the San Antonio area tag Monarch butterflies in the fall, as part of the Monarch Watch citizen science tagging program based out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Butterflies tagged in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country have been recovered in the mountains of Michoacán, proving migratory patterns and providing data for scientists. (Personally I have tagged more than 2,000 butterflies, with 27 recoveries.) Programs and pollinator gardens have been established via Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, the Native Plant Society and elsewhere, as well as at community and private gardens all over town.

That’s not to say we’re limited to citizen science in San Antonio. A recent $300K grant awarded UTSA by the State Comptroller’s Office to perform a statewide milkweed survey also contributed to our Monarch Champion status. Combine that with our grass roots volunteers, SARA and SAWS, and the efforts of many other organizations and individuals, and San Antonio’s status as Monarch Champion makes huge sense.

UTSA students monitor for milkweed
UTSA students monitor milkweed for the UTSA Texas milkweed inventory study. Photo courtesy UTSA

Naturally, those of us involved in Monarch butterfly and pollinator advocacy are giddy about the news.  For a while, we wondered if it were going to happen.

NWF’s Grace Barnett, Dr. Terri Matiella of UTSA and I met with the Mayor’s office in October requesting that Mayor Taylor sign the Pledge. By doing so, she would have joined mayors in St. Louis, Austin, Grand Prairie, and six other cities along the IH-35 corridor that were among the vanguard to sign the pledge. All we expected was participation–a commitment to three of the 24 items. The Mayor’s office was very receptive, but as is often the case when dealing with city government, nothing happened immediately.

Later we met with the City sustainability office. Joan Miller of the Native Plant Society of Texas joined us.  Again, very receptive. Yet….by early December, cities like Oklahoma City, Houston and Garrett, Texas, (population 800) had signed the Pledge while San Antonio continued to consider its options.

Butterfly advocates speculated as recently as Saturday that the Pledge was dead. Little did we know that what was taking so long was that the Mayor’s office was working with departments across the City to assure they could come through with all 24 items and make us the nation’s first Monarch Champion city.

“I am pleased that we have set the bar so high in our efforts to attract and care for one very important set of visitors, migrating Monarch butterflies,” said Mayor Taylor in a prepared statement that accompanied a city press release last night. In a separate conversation, Taylor said she is even considering a pollinator garden in her Dignowity Hill front yard as well as at the historic Dignowity Park, which her home fronts.

Whenever you’re ready, Mayor, let us know. We’ll bring our shovels, spades, and milkweed, ready to help.

*Top image: Monarch butterfly on native Swamp milkweed in downtown San Antonio pollinator garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...