Earlier this month I found myself in Goose Pond Nature Preserve — a 600-acre oasis of prairie in a vast desert of corn and soy beans — that’s what it must look like to the monarch butterflies on their 2,000 mile migration to a very specific forest in the mountains of Mexico.

Goose Pond Wildlife Sancutary

Goose Pond Wildlife Sancutary

Operated by the Madison Audubon Society, Goose Pond exists as a get-away for city dwellers and a refuge for many plants and animals who find less and less places to live each year.

I was covering their annual monarch butterfly tagging project.  (see the story as it appeared in Isthmus here)

I love assignments like this!

About 30 of us met that morning in the preserve’s barn for a quick tutorial on why it’s important to tag these monarchs.

Their life cycle is dizzying.

The first butterflies we see in the spring are a little ragged around the edges, if you look at them closely.  And no wonder.  These particular Monarchs spent the winter in Mexico and then flapped their beautiful wings all the way back to Wisconsin and points farther north.

B9315804220Z.1_20150113170957_000_G0N9KN87J.1-0They look for milkweed to lay their eggs on.  The larvae eat only milkweed, which because of it’s bitter, poisonous sap affords the vividly colored caterpillars (and their future butterfly forms) a nasty-tasting, toxic quality that makes insect eaters shy away from them.

Without milkweed, there would be no more monarchs.  And that’s a problem.

According to Monarch Watch, we are losing 6,000 acres of potential monarch/pollinator habitat a day in the United Stated due to development.  That’s 2.2 million acres per year!

The losses of habitat due the adoption of glyphosate tolerant corn and soybeans in the last 10 years amount to at least 100 million acres. 100 million poisoned acres that is a no-bug’s land to many valuable insects that pollinate our crops and eat the bad bugs.  What are we doing?

photo credit: http://valleyvision.org/events/cleaner-air-partnership-smart-farming-solutions-that-benefit-air-quality

photo credit:valleyvision.org

The conversion of 7 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land to crops for the production of biofuels adds to that horrifying total. In all, we estimate the loss of habitat to be 147 million acres since Monarch Watch was started in 1992 – an area 4 times the state of Illinois.

Just imagine what hungry, weary Monarchs are looking down on as they try to make their way from the Midwest to Mexico and back these days.

If they are lucky, they look down and see something like Goose Pond Preserve.

Goose Pond is a beautiful space for humans as well.  We went out into its prairie with nets and began the joyous process of searching for, netting and tagging Monarchs.

IMG_6785It’s a delicate process, but evidently, careful handling does not hurt the Monarch, and it’s o.k. with the added baggage of a tiny, very light tag about the size of a paper punch hole that is printed with waterproof ink on polypropylene sheets that have special 3M ¨ adhesive on the back. The tag is placed very close to the butterfly’s body so that it doesn’t interfere with flying.

According to Matt Reetz, executive director of the Madison Audubon Society, a tagged butterfly is no worse for wear and has a great story to tell its pals.

It gives you a remarkable feeling to handle an almost weightless monarch, press a tiny tag onto its wing, then release it and watch it fly up and away.  All of sudden the vast distance this tiny traveler has ahead of it seems very, very real.

It’s the path they have been following since the last glaciers melted about 12,000 years ago.

But times have changed dramatically since their terrain has been settled and planted.

Tagged Monarch about to be released.

Tagged Monarch about to be released.

“The chance of the butterfly you have just release making it all the way to Mexico or California is very slight, and the chance of its tag being recovered is even slighter.

But Monarch Watch and other organizations are starting to collect information which we need to learn ways to share the world we keep “developing” with Monarchs.

It’s not too early to start thinking about joining the taggers next year and learning other ways we can personally help these creatures keep flying.

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