Of the 110 butterfly species in Vermont, there's one that really stands out-- the monarch. But the state butterfly may be harder to find.
"I would expect a very low population in Vermont this year," said Kent McFarland, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.
That's because of a recent study showing that monarch numbers in Mexico were at their lowest recorded point ever.
"There has been a decline over about a decade in the wintering grounds. But I was surprised at how small the wintering area was this year," McFarland said.
Extreme weather and changes in farming practices in the United States and Canada may be to blame.
"It looks like between drought and GMO crops damaging how milkweed is growing in the Midwest that it's led to a big problem," McFarland said.
That's because milkweed is the only thing monarch butterflies eat, but many farmers consider it a pesky weed. McFarland says changing practices-- like allowing more milkweed to grow-- could turn things around.
"It's not like monarchs are just going to go extinct tomorrow. That's not really what's going to happen here," he said. "But what could happen is that the phenomenon, this migratory phenomenon, could just disappear."
Researchers tracking the monarch movement can thank citizen scientists for their work. It's part of a larger movement in the science community to have people log onto websites and tell researchers what they're seeing where they live.
"A lot of the work we need to do we couldn't possibly do with professional biologists. One, because there's not enough of them and two, it would cost millions of dollars. So we can do really interesting projects to understand these species on the cheap by involving volunteer help," McFarland said.
Through Monarch Watch, for instance, people can tag butterflies. Fifteen of the ones from Vermont have already shown up in Mexico. Other sites, such as the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, show scientists the growth in individual areas.
"We found out that there was an 80 percent reduction around corn crops from citizen scientists," McFarland said.
On the Journey North site people document the spring migration live through monarch sightings. And e-Butterfly-- launched just last month-- is the latest effort to engage the public.
"It's a way for us to track butterfly populations in Vermont and beyond," McFarland said.
In the meantime, they're hoping for good breeding conditions this summer that will allow the population to climb back up.
Since female monarchs can lay up to 200 eggs at a time, McFarland says as long as there is good milkweed production and no disease, their population could rebound during their stay in Vermont.
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