UTSA is growing a lot of milkweed, which is good news for this late season Monarch at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.
UTSA is growing a lot of milkweed, which is good news for this late season Monarch at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.

Nearly 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force meeting in Austin on Thursday, Dec. 17, to hear the State Comptroller’s office updates on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species, which assists landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state. Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.

Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing has fallen under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.

Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”

And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 a.m. session with updates on the $300,000 research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.

The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” during their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in Michoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first eggs in Texas during the multi-generation migration in March; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.

About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and a second survey take in October to November.   The east-west transect stretches from Pineland to Ozona and the north-south reaches from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvert in 1996.

“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said of the surveys.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear…If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares (roosting Monarch butterflies) in Mexico.”

The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as tropical milkweed.  The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.

Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different types of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.

“We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”

UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices. For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed? How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also mentioned news of  San Antonio’s recent naming as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week and made San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitats.

“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”

Katie Latta, USFWS monarch 0utreach specialist, also took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.

At the moment, the listing is in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not listing the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. The USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not, sometime in 2017 or 2018.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  Latta said.

ESA process
The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic Courtesy of USFWS.

Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.

Sometime in early 2016, an RFP will be circulated and published in the Texas Register, inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue an RFP, but will do so in the interest of transparency.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best way to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith
A Monarch butterfly laying eggs. Research shows late season Monarchs are reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

For years, scientists believed late season and migrating Monarchs ceased reproductive activities to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.

Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well as laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.

This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch. Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  Climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, will make the question even more interesting.

*Top Image: UTSA is growing a lot of milkweed, which is good news for this late season Monarch at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo Courtesy UTSA.

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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...