Chaos theory in reverse as individuals provide stability to monarch population

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Reflections from my Notebook

The butterfly effect, coined by scientist Edward Lorenz, a pioneer in chaos theory, asserts that the particulars of a tornado in Texas, for example, are influenced by minor factors, such as the flapping of wings by a butterfly in Brazil several weeks earlier. Lorenz might have overstated the effect, but he gets his point across why it is so hard to predict the weather and many other things in our world with such a wide range of variables contributing to conditions.

The link between the movement of butterfly wings and powerful tornadoes is a remarkable concept. It makes us realize just how our lives are intertwined with everything on earth, even the tiny wings of butterflies.   

For some people, that awareness is a thing of delight — that individuals have such a vital connection to everything else on earth.

To others, though, the butterfly effect can lead to apathy or resignation — the world is so complex with an infinite number of variables that what they do doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

However, butterflies — specifically monarchs — also show how actions by people do matter. Individuals can make an impact on the lives of these delicate creatures.

Monarch butterflies have seen a 90 percent decrease in numbers — from nearly a billion to 93 million — in the last two decades.  The primary reason is loss of their habitat, which includes the only caterpillar host plant, milkweed, in the United States as well as the degradation of their Mexican mountain forest habitat where they winter. The increased use of pesticides, climate change, even the hurricanes last year have also contributed to the decline.

However, many people in Minnesota have noticed more monarchs in recent days as the butterfly begins its annual migration south to Mexico.  The apparent increase is backed by observations of experts, although the numbers won’t be certain until the monarchs reach Mexico where scientists can measure how much forest space they take up.

If the trend is reversed this year, it will be due to a variety of efforts by non-profit organizations, federal and state governments, and individuals in recent years.

For example, the National Wildlife Federation launched an initiative called the Monarch Highway, which calls for planting pollinator-friendly vegetation along the Interstate 35 corridor from Minnesota through Texas. The highway and the land adjacent to it follow the migratory path of monarchs.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is one of the state agencies participating in the project. The department is planting wildflower seed mixes on roadsides.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is planting diverse wildflower seeds throughout state forests parks and trails while the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is working on turning the state’s 109 closed landfills into pollinator-friendly habitats.

Minnesota also has several organizations involved in restoring monarch habitat. The Monarch Joint Venture based at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus is a partnership of state agencies, non-governmental conservation organizations and educational/research academic programs that are working together to protect monarch migration.

However, because the range of the butterfly migration is so huge, individuals can play a big role in reversing the trend. Research shows that monarchs need widespread help, in urban and rural areas from Canada to Mexico.

Individual assistance is relatively easy. People can plant pesticide-free, native nectar and milkweed plants to create a pollinator-friendly garden. The milkweed is for the caterpillars while the nectar plants help monarchs during their migration.

The Monarch Joint Venture notes that if people don’t have space for a pollinator garden, even a container garden on a balcony or planting on shared space on a patio or along a front walk will help.

Some people may wonder why all the attention on butterflies, which may not be known for contributing much to our world except explaining chaos theory. Monarchs contribute a service to farmers as pollinators, which include monarchs, are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat.

Planting monarch/pollinator habitat also provides storm water mitigation, benefits other birds and mammals that use the same habitat, and adds beauty to the landscape from colorful wildflowers.

Individuals will never know exactly what kind of impact they will make on the monarch, just as there is no way to identify exactly which monarch makes an impact on a tornado. Individuals joining together, though, can create a powerful force that will preserve an iconic insect that is a beautiful, and integral, inhabitant of our world.

Note: The National Wildlife Federation was named the National Wildlife Foundation until a correction was made on Sept. 9.