Here at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens we believe in the importance of conserving the world’s wildlife and wild places. In 2020, the Zoo raised over $220,000 toward to benefit local and global conservation efforts as part of its Round Up for Conservation initiative. Through individual guest contributions, Round Up for Conservation funds helped cultivate 10 conservation success stories in 2020. Of those ten, the Zoo was able to strengthen its long-time commitment to monarch butterfly conservation.
The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable species of butterflies in North America. Seeing its large, bright black and orange wings is a welcoming sign of the spring season. Sadly, monarch populations have continued to disappear over the past 20 years. Once found in the millions, the monarch population has dropped over 80%, with only a few thousand sighting this past winter. An increase of pesticide use and habitat loss are the two main causes for the population decline, which dropped 26% in 2020 alone.
Though they don’t live year-round in Oklahoma, it is a major state along the monarch migration flyway. Monarchs begin their journey in Mexico, where they fly North to Canada, laying eggs on milkweed, its only host plant, along its migration path. Monarchs can travel between 50 and 100 miles per day, taking up to two months to complete their journey. In spring, monarchs will travel up to southern Canada and eastern United States, nearly 3,000 miles, and migrate back to Mexico in the fall.
A staple of Oklahoma’s spring ecosystem, the monarch population is crucial in pollinating Oklahoma’s diverse plant species. In an effort to combat the declining monarch population, the Zoo’s Director of Conservation and Science, Dr. Rebecca Snyder, helped found the Oklahoma Monarch and Pollinator Collaborative, also known as Okies for Monarchs, which involves 50 organizations around the state in increasing habitat for monarchs and other pollinators in Oklahoma. Thanks to Okies for Monarchs, these organizations and citizens in Oklahoma are working together to ensure thriving monarch migrations for generations to come.
Using proceeds from Art Gone Wild animal painting sales, the Zoo funds grants for metro area schools to plant monarch gardens and provides workshops to train teachers how to use the gardens to teach their students about the importance of pollinators. In 2020, the Zoo launched a new book, “Juniper’s Butterfly Garden” written by the Zoo’s Creative Services Manager, Autumn Heigle, for the Read for Adventure program across Oklahoma. The book teaches about the importance of planting for monarchs and includes a recommended plant list as well as instructions for planting a pollinator garden - provided by Okies for Monarchs. Through the Read for Adventure program, this book is available to be checked out from public libraries across the state and upon its return the card holder receives four Zoo admission tickets.
The Zoo is also home to the Pollinator Garden, located along Zoo lake. The Pollinator Garden is a 20,000 square-foot garden that serves as a home for dozens of nectar plants, selected to provide nutrients and shelter for monarch butterflies and other pollinators.
An easy way for Zoo fans to help monarchs and other pollinators is by planting native nectar plants and milkweed. Both potted patio plants and large green gardens can provide pollinators with a much-needed pitstop as they migrate through Oklahoma. To learn how to create a monarch oasis in your own backyard, visit http://www.okiesformonarchs.org. Butterfly fans can also help monarch by becoming a citizen scientist and reporting monarch sightings at https://journeynorth.org/monarch.
--Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science