Scientists want to learn more about monarch butterflies in Wyoming, and they’re asking residents for help.
Through a program called Monarchs and Milkweeds, Wyoming residents are invited to submit observations of both monarch butterflies and milkweed plants to WyoBio, a statewide citizen science website.
The goal is to learn more about where the migratory butterfly travels in the state, how many pass through and whether they reproduce here, said Brenna Marsicek, outreach coordinator at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute.
“This project is geared toward expanding our database of where this species is and how well the population is doing, and if Wyoming is even an important place for monarchs,” she said.
The monarch butterfly, with its familiar black, orange and white wing pattern, travels thousands of miles during a migration from the northern United States and Canada to California and Mexico.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the butterfly’s population has declined by a billion members since 1990. At their wintering habitat in central Mexico, where scientists estimate their population, monarchs covered 50 acres in 1996. A few years ago, they occupied less than 2 acres, the smallest area in 20 years.
A number of factors could be contributing to their decline, including decreasing numbers of milkweed plants, which are used by monarchs for breeding.
“Milkweeds are the only plants that monarchs will lay eggs on and that caterpillars will feed off of,” Marsicek said.
In 2014, the butterfly was petitioned for listing on the Endangered Species Act. Canada, the United States and Mexico have also pledged to work together to help the iconic insect.
In Wyoming, biologists at the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database pulled together historical data about monarchs in Wyoming and realized there wasn’t much there.
“They found out we have almost none,” Marsicek said.
She said there’s a recorded observation of a monarch butterfly from every county in the state, although some of those observations could be inaccurate.
“There’s very little data about the species here,” she said.
The Monarchs and Milkweeds program was run as a pilot project in 2015, sponsored by the Biodiversity Institute, Wyoming Natural Diversity Database and The Nature Conservancy. It was a small-scale project, but participants around the state turned in useful observations.
“It was a good indication that this is something worth expanding and pursuing,” she said.
Data gathered from the project will be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to help the agency make its decision about listing.
“We’re not trying to make sure it’s listed, or prevent it from being listed,” Marsicek said. “This is purely a data-collection project because we have so little data about monarchs.”
Amy Pocewicz, a conservation scientist at The Nature Conservancy, said milkweeds — a dozen species are native to Wyoming — are in full bloom across the state right now, attracting monarchs to lay eggs on their leaves.
“This is a great time to have an eye out for caterpillars,” she said.
The perennial plant can be found growing along roadsides and in other disturbed areas.
“It’s fairly easy to find,” she said.
The monarch migration is complex, spanning multiple generations. Pocewicz said butterflies head north to breed, and those that are bred here probably return south, although much remains unknown.
“They do breed here, we’re just not sure how often that happens or how many,” she said.
Any observations of adult monarchs, caterpillars, eggs and milkweeds can be recorded at www.wyobio.org or through www.monarchsandmilkweeds.org. Photographs are important for allowing scientists to verify a siting, as both monarchs and milkweed can be mistaken for other species.
Marsicek said the beauty of citizen science projects is that anyone can be involved, not just those with a formal education in biology.
“It just requires that somebody be curious about what the question is,” she said.