How campaigns to save the monarch butterfly can threaten Vancouver Island’s biodiversity

Campaigns mailing out milkweed seeds for monarch butterflies could be introducing more invasive species to Vancouver Island, experts say.
Monarch butterfly on some flowers, orange wings spread open
While you can find monarch butterflies on Vancouver Island at places like Coombs Butterfly World, they are not native to the region. Photo by Lys Morton

Monarch butterflies were officially declared endangered in 2022, the latest species to struggle with the effects of the climate crisis and agricultural activities. 

You may have noticed a call to action to plant milkweed, the main food source and nesting point for monarch butterflies. 

But ads to mail in a self-addressed envelope for milkweed seeds harkens back to previous ill-fated “protect the pollinators” campaigns. 

General Mills’ Bring Back the Bees program has come under scrutiny for sending packages of wildflower seeds to areas where the plants are invasive, costing regional conservation groups time and resources keeping their local ecosystems safe. 

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Monarch butterflies summer through most of the northeast United States and southeast Canada then travel upwards of 4,500 kilometers south to winter in Mexico. They don’t typically travel through Vancouver Island

Though sightings have been recorded here and there, the BC Conservation Data Centre believes these events are most likely the result of enthusiasts hatching eggs in backyards or monarch butterflies from the mainland being blown west. 

As monarchs continue to be threatened by habitat loss and as warming temperatures change their migratory patterns to include more of the Pacific Northwest, scientists have observed a stronger presence of the butterfly throughout southern B.C.

It turns out, B.C.’s showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) isn’t native to Vancouver Island either. The perennial is found naturally throughout the province’s southern Interior but transplanted as a garden plant on Vancouver Island. The large reddish purple flowers blossom to show delicate white stars in a show that competes with the sizable blooms of rhododendrons.

“Sixty per cent of invasive species are planted by humans, often purchasing from stores and nurseries,” Gail Wallin, executive director of Invasive Species Council of BC explains to The Discourse. “Some milkweed species are going to be very invasive to Vancouver Island and should be avoided. Others you could plant and properly manage and it will be more classified as an exotic species.”

It’s easy to picture good samaritans around the Island planting an abundance of showy milkweed, only to have the plant become the next Scotch broom. But Wallin advises locals to research what plants are native to your area and focus energy there.

Be PlantWise,” Wallin says, referring to the Invasive Species Council of BC’s education program that helps gardeners identify invasive species and replace them with native substitutes. ISCBC also reaches out to nurseries around BC and helps them halt the sales of invasive species. “Know what’s in your garden, what’s in your area. If invasive species are being sold to you, contact us and we have means to deal with that.”

Environmental Educator Hunter Jarratt tells The Discourse mail-in seed packets are the latest in well-meaning actions doing damage.

“A lot of people are wanting to do their part to help fix the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis. We want to feel good, like we’re doing something. At the same time there are companies that are kind of preying on that.”

With 60 different native species of butterflies on Vancouver Island, creating a pollinator habitat garden is sure to bring some of them to your green space. Hunter says focusing on learning what your region supports and helping identify invasive species can create larger impacts than focusing on just one species. 

Local organizations like Nanaimo and Area Land Trust offer native plant starters such as pearly everlasting and trailing blackberry, the native counter to the invasive Himalayan blackberry

Programs to report invasive species in your area can help identify what range invasive species have overtaken and where to focus conservation and land management resources.

“That information gets sent right to professionals,” Hunter explains. “And they can get back to you and provide you with more information. And also, we can then include that in management plans.”

In the Nanaimo region, residents are encouraged to use the Report-A-Weed app and start up a volunteer work party to remove invasive species. 

While recent reports from the Mexico branch of the World Wildlife Federation say monarch butterfly populations are still falling, recovery strategies for B.C.’s own at-risk species continue to be updated with actions residents can take. 

A 2021 assessment of the Edward’s Beach Moth advised continued conservation efforts throughout the Gulf Islands and smaller islands in the Salish Sea.

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