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As Dwindling Monarch Butterflies Make Their Migration, Feds Try to Save Them

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Dale Gerhard, The Press of Atlantic City/AP

CAPE MAY POINT, New Jersey-Two years ago migrating monarch butterflies transformed the lush gardens of Cape May Point into a series of "giant orange snowglobes." That's how Mark Garland of the Monarch Monitoring Project describes the good monarch days, the kind of days when thousands fly overhead.

There's been no such spectacle yet this year, but Garland and members of the project's team, who take a census of the monarchs three times a day, are holding out hope. The popular orange-and-black insects will be drifting toward this peninsula for a few more weeks to fill up on nectar before riding the winds that will hoist them over the Delaware Bay and on toward Mexico.

Holding one gently in his fingers, Garland measures its wings and fat stores, among other details, before affixing it with a numbered sticker. "Right here," he demonstrates to some 80 gathered enthusiasts, pointing to an orange cell on its hind wing, limned with black veins, that he says is shaped "a bit like a mitten."  


NG Maps. Source: Journey North. NG Maps. Source: Journey North.

Few animals inspire as much devotion and study as the monarch butterfly. Its multigenerational, 3,000-mile migration from Canada to Mexico and back to the Gulf Coast states in the spring has long served as a symbol of the beauty and mystery of nature. After centuries of sightings, the discovery of their Mexican wintering sites was first reported in National Geographic in 1976. (Read "Found at Last: The Monarch's Winter Home.")

But the very migration that still puzzles researchers could soon become a thing of the past. Monarch populations are declining at an alarming rate, thanks to a deadly combination of factors that includes Illegal logging in Mexico, wildfires, droughts, and a drastic loss of their crucial milkweed habitat in the United States.  

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