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Monarchs may be in trouble

The Monarch butterfly is shown immediately after emerging from its chrysalis on Wednesday afternoon. The Monarch was released at Patterson Lake on Wednesday.

The monarch butterfly population needs a single thing to continue repopulating -- milkweed.

The only problem is that milkweed is being cut down, leaving the monarchs without a food supply for its offspring. Since it's considered a weed, people want to get rid of the plant and that could cause a problem.

"Milkweed isn't such a bad plant for the habitat world," said Chad Grondahl, outreach supervisor of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Monarchs travel north to south just like birds, says North Dakota State University Entomologist Janet Knodel.

"As they migrate north in the spring, we usually see them in North Dakota around June," she said. "They deposit their eggs and the next generation is the one that migrates back down south.

"Each individual won't make the roundtrip."

Dr. Ronald Royer, a professor at Minot State University, has only seen one monarch so far this season. This trend is something that he sees differ from year to year.

"Some years they are real common and some years they are almost impossible to find," he said. "Butterflies are at a serious decline nationwide."

There isn't an immediate danger of extinction for monarchs, but Royer says if people want to keep the monarchs, keep the milkweed.

"I would call it an increasing rarity locally," he said. "Monarchs aren't in danger of extinction at this point. There are two major populations at the Pacific flyway and mainland flyway.

"If you eradicate the milkweed, then you extricate the monarchs. If they came through, it would be a fly through to get to Mexico."

The extra rarity could be happening just through the Midwest, because of the use of herbicides on farmland.

"It's more likely in areas that people are more likely to control weeds," Royer said. "That seems to me the farm country which is centered on the Midwest."

The main question is, what does the monarch do for us? Knodel had a simple and delicate answer.

"I think a lot of people just enjoy their color," she said. "Most people just enjoy butterflies in general because they are beautiful. A lot of people are into butterfly gardening now, that's a pretty big hobby now."

The use of butterfly gardens can help the monarch population in North Dakota. Royer says yes, but there has to be one thing in the garden.

"If and only if they include milkweed," he said. "The problem isn't a butterfly finding a place to drink flower nectar. Butterflies don't just need flowers, they need larval food plants and almost all cases those are what we call weeds."

Despite ditch milkweed being a scarce commodity for monarchs, Royer believes there are enough wild milkweed variations to keep the monarchs coming back.

"There are few species of milkweed that are just natural in the prairie. It gives me hope that even if we tried to eradicate all of the ditch milkweed population, we'd still have a way for them to survive up here.

"I don't think it's likely that it's going to be extricate from North Dakota, mainly because we have such a large landscape and we can't kill it all off."