In July 2019, a western monarch butterfly laid 588 eggs on a milkweed leaf over a single week in a backyard in Brookings on the Oregon coast near the California border. Big deal? Well, considering western monarch numbers have plummeted by more than 99 percent—from 4.5 million in the mid-1980s to about 2,000 in 2020—it was actually a monumental deal, making the Brookings Monarch Miracle the stuff of butterfly lore.
But what happened to send western monarch butterflies to the verge of extinction? First, climate change and wildfires disrupted their migration and destroyed their nesting and resting habitats. Then pesticides like neonicotinoids began infecting pollinators and poisoning their suitors. These factors make their annual migration from Canada to California—one that spans three to five generations of butterflies—treacherous and wholly dependent on one specific plant. In simplest terms, the main reason why the western monarchs rarely flutter in processions across Oregon is there’s not enough to milkweed to go around.
Yes, milkweed. The western monarch, like other butterfly species, is very specific about its nest. They lay their eggs only on this perennial plant with tiny star-shaped flowers, and monarch caterpillars won’t feed on anything else. As milkweed goes, so goes the western monarch butterfly.
While more abundant in central Oregon, showy and narrow-leaf milkweed is a native plant that can thrive just about anywhere in our home state. The Deschutes Land Trust—a conservation group committed to preserving Central Oregon land and water, and to saving the monarch—gave away 2,000 milkweed plants to local residents last year alone, and the Portland Monarch group has milkweed up for grabs, too. Though sightings of monarchs in Portland are rare, you can help these resilient creatures by creating a waystation (which will help additional pollinators, too). Just choose a sunny patch and plant the clumping milkweed along with other nectar producers like lupine, goldenrod, or Russian sage.
If buying on your own, Deschutes Land Trust stewardship director Amanda Egertson says to plant native milkweed specific to our geographical area and to avoid buying from nurseries that use pesticides. If we all pitch in, she believes, then despite the dwindling numbers another monarch miracle—the rejuvenation of the species—may soon become reality.
“While other species are blipping off the planet at an alarming rate, this is one that we can do something about,” she says. “You don’t even need a yard. You don’t have to own a home. All you need is a container pot and some milkweed.”