The information in this state update was provided by Maggie Hirschauer at email@example.com. Please contact her for additional information about the update.
Montana is a bit of an outlier among the western monarch states, sitting at the far northern tier of North American monarch range and split by the Continental Divide into distinct western and eastern regions. Yet Montana supports pockets of high-quality milkweed habitats and breeding populations of monarchs on both sides of the Divide—even in 2020!
Montana’s geography and complex topography raise intriguing questions about the source of its monarch breeding population. Western breeding grounds are roughly defined as being west of the Rocky Mountain Divide, while the eastern monarch population’s breeding grounds generally lie in the prairies and badlands to the east. But just how permeable are these boundaries and how does Montana’s topographic relief influence western and eastern monarch movements and seasonal distributions? And how do Montana’s extensive river systems and rich river valleys of milkweed and nectar plants influence migratory connectivity between the western and eastern populations?
There is much to learn about the relative importance of Montana to the western monarch population, but it is fair to say the contribution, though likely modest, only adds to the species’ viability and resiliency across its western range.
Showy Milkweed in full bloom at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge | Photo credit Maggie Hirschauer
By Maggie Hirschauer
Monarch Waystation Soundmap Project
How would you combine long-distance cycling, beautiful music, and monarch conservation? The Monarch Waystation Soundmap Project is a star example of how one person can make a huge difference. One of the best ways to contribute to monarch conservation is through planting native milkweeds and other native nectar sources. This fall, a few musician/cyclists across the Pacific Northwest planned to cycle monarchs’ southward migration route, plant native milkweed seeds along the way, and compose music for each site. Each waystation will be marked for future cyclists to water next spring and monitor for monarchs in coming years.
The project was founded by composer/cyclist Alex Wand and sound artist/computer programmer Stephanie Chang Smith. Each waystation location on the project’s website provides clips of music (mostly guitar) composed specifically for the location.
Erik Miron, who contributes to the project under the pen-name “Comrade Caracol”, was hoping to travel some portion of the monarch migration route this fall starting in northwest Montana. Unfortunately, poor air quality resulting from ubiquitous wildfires forced him to change plans, but he was not deterred! He made several shorter trips to plant showy milkweed seeds in Whitefish and Columbia Falls’ Community Gardens, Swan Valley Community Library, Hwy-93 Bitterroot Bike Trail, and many more.
Playing outdoors to an all plant ‘audience’ is a drastic deviation from Erik’s other experiences playing music in venues across Los Angeles. His band, The Vignes Rooftop Revival, was known as an eco-friendly jazz band often seen biking across downtown LA with bass, drums, or guitar in tow. When COVID-19 turned everyone’s world upside-down, Erik came home to Montana for a while and decided to turn his creative efforts toward monarch conservation. If we all took Erik’s lead to dedicate our actions toward other species’ survival, this world would be a much more positive (and musical) place.
Bitterroot Monarch Project
How many monarchs are in western Montana? When are they here? Where do they come from, and where do they go? These are just a few of the questions the Bitterroot Monarch Project hopes to answer.
Maggie Hirschauer initiated the Bitterroot Monarch Project (BMP) in the summer of 2019, supported by the MPG Ranch. The project aims to document milkweed across the northern 40 miles of the Bitterroot Valley, restore milkweed through seed distribution and root cuttings, understand monarch biology and phenology in the region, and educate the public along the way.
BMP Stevensville roadside milkweed photo credit Maggie Hirschauer: Milkweed surveys in the Bitterroot Valley discovered lots of showy milkweed along roadsides in Stevensville.
Enthusiasm, surprise (Monarchs in Montana!?), and interest from the surrounding community has grown the BMP into a network of volunteers each championing their own milkweed site. This summer 13 volunteers surveyed milkweed weekly for monarchs following the methods of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP). Their data will be reported on the MLMP website for researchers to use nation-wide and will be compiled to gain a better understanding of monarch phenology in our region.
Only a handful of adult butterflies were seen across the Bitterroot Valley this summer. However, volunteers’ hard work surveying milkweed has paid off. BMP volunteers documented monarchs in Stevensville and Missoula, coinciding with Beth’s observations of monarchs in the National Bison Range (see article below). The project captive-reared and released 5 butterflies in August, tagged under Dr. David James’ Pacific Northwest Tagging Program.
BMP Adult feeds photo credit Jordan Hoffmaster: A monarch female feeds on goldenrod (Solidago sp.) soon after release on the MPG Ranch.
National Bison Range
by Beth Waterbury
The National Bison Range is an 18,500-acre refuge managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Western Montana National Wildlife Refuge Complex. This past summer, I conducted a field survey for milkweeds and monarchs on the NBR with objectives to: 1) address information gaps on the distribution of milkweed and its potential use as natal habitat by monarchs, and 2) build the capacity of NBR managers to implement conservation practices beneficial to monarchs and other pollinators.
From June - September, ~90 distinct ‘patches’ of showy milkweed (A. speciosa) were documented on the NBR, representing ~19,000 individual milkweed plants and ~35,000 stems. Monarch observations were limited to one patch of showy milkweed in the Mission Creek floodplain where an adult was observed on July 14 and her progeny (6 larvae) were observed from July 24 to August 1. The cohort did not survive long past the 4th instar stage, possibly succumbing to predation or lethally-high daytime temperatures (≥95 ° F) during late July - early August. Although the cohort did not survive, this was one of the northernmost verified observations of monarch breeding in the western states in 2020. A final project report is anticipated by December 1, 2020.
Montana Audubon Center
Restoration and healing the land can be a powerful tool. The Montana Audubon Center’s facility in Billings rests on a 54-acre reclaimed gravel mine bordering the Yellowstone River. Staff and volunteers made showy milkweed a focus in their gardens and this year their hard work was validated. Between the facility’s showy milkweed and a volunteer’s milkweed across town, volunteers found 22 monarch larvae between July and August.
Finding and rearing these creatures has been an incredible experience for the Montana Audubon Center’s staff and volunteers as monarchs have never been noticed on the site before. Volunteer Coordinator Emily Chilcoat says she’s been seeing more people in Billings posting about the monarch caterpillars. She is encouraging them to log their sightings with Journey North. In fact, fall migration monarch reports on Journey North confirmed Billings has been a hot spot for monarch sightings between August and September.
The Center plans to create volunteer milkweed monitoring programs in future years and tag the adult butterflies. A question worth pondering is to which population do Billings monarchs belong – east or west – or both?
We monarch enthusiasts from the Big Sky State are very excited to join Western Monarch Advocates’ growing interstate network! Thank you for welcoming us.