Protecting the Monarch Butterflies: Conservation in your own backyard

After an article in last month’s Toronto Star about the monarch butterfly population being at risk due to climate change, we had a number of phone calls, emails and letters from Canadians, asking how they can help and what we, as Canadians, can do to help save the monarch.

To learn more about this topic, I spoke to Sherry Pettigrew, an environmental conservation educator, Monarch butterfly enthusiast, and wife of WWF-Canada President Emeritus Monte Hummel. Sherry has created a habitat for monarch butterflies, where she raises and tags them throughout their lifespan, all in her own backyard.

The challenges Monarchs face

Given the great numbers of Monarchs (up to 100 million) that may be seen in southern Canada, and which gather to migrate south each fall, it is hard to imagine them facing any threat of extinction. In reality, however, Monarchs and their amazing annual migration are seriously threatened by human activities, in both their summer and overwintering sites.
In the northern portions of their range (the United States and southern Canada), Monarchs face:
–99 percent mortality: Monarch survival rate from birth is just one percent.  Female Monarch butterflies can lay upwards of 400 eggs – and even then, usually only one egg per milkweed plant – but most  eggs and first instar (“stage”) caterpillars are food for other creatures, such as earwigs and spiders, and even their own siblings where there is more than one on a plant, which does occur occasionally
–Outright habitat destruction: roads, development, and other human-created expansion all transform  natural landscapes in ways that can make it nearly impossible for Monarchs to survive.
–Indirect habitat destruction: The loss of their host plants. Monarchs lay eggs on, and the caterpillars can only feed on Milkweed, a plant considered a noxious weed by many municipalities. Insecticides, herbicides and other chemicals are lethal to Monarchs (and most insects) at all stages of their lives
In their overwintering sites (California for the Western population, and Mexico for the Eastern population), the challenges are just as severe:
Increased popularity of the California coast (the monarch’s ideal habitat) increases the pressure to build, remove trees, and develop the land.  There are only 11-14 known sites where Eastern Monarchs congregate in Mexico. Each site is a few hectares in size and contains millions of Monarch butterflies. This combination – a high concentration of individuals in only a few small sites – makes the possibility of habitat destruction in Mexico very serious.

Conservation in your own backyard

According to Sherry, there is something that you can do right away to help the Monarch butterfly population:
–Avoid spraying toxics – herbicides, pesticides, insecticides – on and around your property.

(C) Sherry Pettigrew, WWF-Canada

For people who are even more invested in the process, a butterfly garden is a fun way both to see more Monarchs and help increase their feeding areas.   Your butterfly garden can be any size, from a window box, to a portion of your landscaped yard to a wild but tended area on your lot. To get started, Sherry suggests:
Do a bit of scouting and research. The goal is to find out what butterflies visit or live around your area, so that you can provide the plants they need.
–Research Milkweed. Because Monarch butterflies require these very specific plants, investigate to see if it will survive on your property.  You may already have “Common”, “Swamp” or “Butterfly Milkweed in your area.
–Check out, a site that provides a wealth of information on Monarch butterflies.  It has loads of information for butterfly gardens, and kids can use it as a resource for science fair projects or reports.  You could even apply to become a Monarch Way Station through Monarch Watch.
“If you’re really interested in helping the Monarch butterfly populations in your backyard I’d recommend taking a Monarch Teacher  2-day workshop ( It’s the best way to learn about Monarchs whether you are a teacher or not.  It truly was the “best” workshop I have ever attended, and it really opened my eyes to just how all -inclusive the scope of the Monarch butterfly really is.  Monarch butterflies are about much more than just butterflies…”


(C) Sherry Pettigrew, WWF-Canada

To help out with our efforts at WWF-Canada and learn what we are doing to help protect the habitat of Monarch butterflies, visit our ‘Protecting Natural Habitats’ page.