The city of Brookings is now an official layover for Monarch butterflies.
The city council Monday night approved a resolution proclaiming Brookings a member of Monarch City USA — the first in Oregon and the fifth in the nation.
The butterflies have suffered a precipitous decline in numbers since 1990 — by some estimates more than a billion — and are just starting to recover, thanks to the efforts of butterly enthusiasts throughout the country.
“As a biologist, whenever I hear something is going extinct, I’m always commited to save (species) on the brink of extinction,” City Councilor Dennis Triglia said of his enthusiasm for the orange butterflies. “They fascinate children and senior citizens and everyone in between; it’s something everyone can latch onto. For me it’s a no-brainer.”
The local designation was prompted by the Brookings Oregon Monarch Advocacy (BOMA) group, Triglia and resident Vicki Mion, who has been breeding the colorful insect and encouraging people to plant milkweed and nectar-bearing plants throughout town to encourage the butterflies to stop on their migration routes.
According to Triglia, there are four monarch way-stations in Brookings and 85 in the state. He, Mion and local residents Patsy Haggerty and Mark St. James each have one in their backyard. Three more are planned to be added this year, and students at Kalmiopsis Elementary and the high schools hope to obtain certification soon.
The way-stations, usually a patch of milkweed plants or other flowering nectar shrubs, provide spots for the butterflies to rest and refuel on their long journeys.
Those habitat spots are critical to the butterfly’s survival, Triglia said.
Their numbers fell by 76 percent over the past three decades, primarily due to habitat loss. In Mexico, their southernmost point on the route, monarch butterflies used to occupy almost 50 acres, with millions if not billions of butterflies. That’s now down to less than 10.
Mion has raised the butterflies for years, which involves locating eggs on milkweed stalks, bringing them indoors for five molts to transform into a chrysalis, feeding the voracious caterpillars, then tagging the emerging butterfly with a tiny sticker with an identifying code and an email address and setting them free.
“I have had the thrill of actually raising and tagging these little creatures and finding them south of San Francisco,” said Mion, a self-proclaimed monarch nut. “It’s really a thrill for me.”
Monarchs raised by hand have an 80 to 90 percent chance of survival once released, compared to those that randomly leave eggs on a milkweed plant and whose eggs, chrysalis, caterpillar and butterflies must fend for themselves.
Their biggest threats are a wasp and fly that lay eggs in the forming butterfly, ultimately killing it.
“If you do it to the level of me, Vicki and BOMA, it’s a labor of love,” Triglia said of the two hours he spends each day during the two- to three-month season. “It does require a bit of work. But if people add a few more waystations, that’s just as good. Even a 2 percent survival rate is better than no survival.”
Fly! Be free!
The ones that do survive are set free with a tiny tag on their wing. Butterflies, Triglia noted, weigh about as much as a paperclip, and the little tag weighs 1/50th of that. People who find the butterfly submit the insect’s tag number to scientists at the University of Washington so they can track the travel and life of that particular monarch.
Only about one in 200 butterflies, however, is ever found along western migration route, Triglia said. The longest trip recorded was last summer from Walla Walla, Washington to Morro Bay, California — a 775-mile flight at 30 to 40 miles a day— although they can migrate as far south as Mexico.
BOMA members released 220 butterflies in 2015 and 269 last year; of those, four were found in the central California cities of Windsor, Aptos and Bolinas.
They are considered an indicator species — the canary in a coal mine — of an area’s general ecological health, meaning they are among the first to be affected by adverse conditions in that environment.
People wishing to plant milkweed — it’s poisonous, so deer and birds won’t eat it — can sometimes find it in local nurseries, but people should make sure that even the native species haven’t been treated with insecticides.
“It’s more of a feel-good thing,” Triglia said of the effort, “but it’s so appealing to so many people.”
As part of being a Monarch City, officials must commit to help them survive, encourage citizens to plant their favorite food — milkweed and nectar flowers — work with garden clubs to display information at booths at fairs and shows, educate students about the butterfly’s importance in the local ecosystem and host an annual butterfly festival.
The $350 cost includes membership in Monarch City USA and two signs, which will be erected either at the entrances to town or at city hall and Azalea Park.