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A monarch butterfly in Riverhead. (Credit: Tara Smith)

In late July, migratory monarch butterflies reached an unfortunate milestone: the species was added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species and classified for the first time as endangered.

The wondrous orange and black-outlined butterflies are known for their unique annual migration, a phenomenon that includes a journey of 3,000 miles to reach their winter grounds in Mexico, Central America and Southern California. According to the United States Forest Service, they’re the only butterflies known to make a two-way migration like birds do.

In a statement, IUCN director general Dr. Bruno Oberle said the update “highlights the fragility of nature’s wonders” and said conservation actions are necessary to preserve environmental diversity. Scientists (at the Switzerland-based organization) say the species is most threatened by habitat destruction, pesticide use and climate change. 

According to the report, native populations have plummeted — the western population was found to have declined by an estimated 99% from as many as 10 million to 1,914 butterflies since the 1980s to 2021. The eastern population, while larger, has also shrunk by an estimated 84% since the mid-90s, prompting concerns that the species is teetering on the brink of extinction.

“It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope. So many people and organizations have come together to try and protect this butterfly and its habitats,” said Anna Walker, a member of the IUCN species survival commission who led the monarch butterfly assessment. “We all have a role to play in making sure this iconic insect makes a full recovery.”

Though the designation isn’t necessarily good news for the monarch butterfly, local environmentalists hope the news leads to action at other levels.

 “It’s a big deal,” said Taralynn Reynolds, outreach director at Group for the East End. “We’re talking about a global decline. A global group of concerned scientists are looking at the population data and saying these insects are in trouble.”

Reynolds is hopeful that the IUCN distinction will heighten awareness about the importance of native species and avoiding pesticides and underscore the need for conservation efforts. She and other advocates also believe the international designation could lead to inclusion under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

While climate change is a driver and some factors — severe weather, long periods of drought — are seemingly out of our control, there are still several things individuals can do locally that will help the struggling species. We asked Reynolds and our friends at both Peconic River Herb Farm and The Gardens at Beds & Borders for some pointers.

Plant milkweed

Ensuring that there’s milkweed, or Asclepias in the landscape is crucial to monarch survival. It’s their only host plant, allowing adults a habitat to lay their eggs and larvae to successfully develop into maturity.

There are a multitude of varieties, but native species are preferred to have the greatest positive impact. “If you can get a local ecotype, meaning its provenance is from Long Island, that’s number one, the best route to go,” Reynolds said. “But you can get regionally native as well.”

As a rule of thumb, milkweed varieties at big box stores are more likely to be non-natives that contain pesticides. Shop local!

Prioritize native species and fall blooms

It’s not all about the milkweed. Monarchs need a variety of nectaring plants, specifically fall blooming plants, to fuel the first leg of their migration. “They need that energy,” Reynolds said.

Native goldenrod and asters varieties like New York Ironweed and New England make great additions to a wildflower pollinator garden. “The asters are a beautiful deep purple and offsetting that with our native goldenrod really brings that last hurrah before we start heading into the winter. It creates not only an aesthetically beautiful [garden] to look at but provides that nutrition for the migrating monarchs,” Reynolds said.

At The Gardens at Beds & Borders in Laurel, manager Luisa Alvarado listed Allium, Calamintha nepeta, colorful zinnias and Heliopsis among her favorite butterfly-attracting plants.

“The best thing people can do is plant native. That is going to help a lot for butterflies and other insects too,” Alvarado said. “Bees, birds, they will be very happy when people have [natives] in the garden.” 

The magical Peconic River Herb Farm in Calverton offers a large selection of native plants. Longtime employee Dory Wallace recommends Eupatorium, also known as Joe Pye weed, for butterfly gardens. “They just dance all around the flowers,” she said. Wallace also suggested Liatris, a long-blooming perennial and varieties of fragrant phlox to attract butterflies, but also hummingbirds and other pollinators to your garden.

Think of it as a butterfly flower buffet.

Avoid pesticides

The chemicals that ward off mosquitoes and ticks can also kill beneficial insects and not to mention impact the local waterways and aquifer. “These things that we’re putting out on our properties are killing everything that we like, too,” Reynolds explained.

In a perfect world, you’d ditch pesticides altogether. If that’s not possible, be judicious in applications, choosing spot treatments over systemic ones and consider using a safer option like  insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils.

Save open space

Habitat preservation is a key factor in the global monarch butterfly crisis. “We still do have a bit of woodlands and meadows on the North Fork, which are under intense development pressure,” explained Reynolds. These habitats are important not only for monarchs, but other butterfly species and animals. Finding reputable organizations that fight to protect habitats can make a difference.

Support local environmental groups 

There are no shortage of advocacy groups on the East End that are working to protect and restore the natural environment. In addition to the Group for the East End, the North Fork Environmental Council, Peconic Land Trust, North Fork Audubon Society and several civic organizations are active. Get involved!