Habitat loss and
climate change are decimating the species. What can the U.S. learn
from Oklahoma tribes efforts to restore their migratory path?
Butterflies winter at
the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán,
Mexico. (ENRIQUE CASTRO/AFP/GETTY)
Seventeen years ago, Jane Breckinridge came home. A citizen of
the Muscogee (Creek) Nation with a great-grandmother who was Euchee,
Breckinridge had left Oklahoma after high school to attend Macalester
College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she decided to stay after
graduation. Some two decades later, shed secured a good-paying
job in publishing, working as a vice president on the business side
of a magazine. She had a nice house in a pleasant neighborhood,
an office in a shiny downtown Minneapolis building complete with
a heated parking spot in the basement garagethe works. And
then I really just sort of chucked it all away to come live at the
end of a dirt road, she said with a laugh.
In 2004, as her fortieth birthday approached, Breckinridge left
her Minnesota life, took a reduced role at her magazine, and returned
home to Muscogee land. She moved back into her family home, located
on the allotment parcel her family has held onto since her great-grandmother
secured it in 1899. That was before Oklahoma was a state, when the
region was known simply as Indian Territory. I just got homesick,
Breckinridge said. And I wanted to come back. For the
monarch butterflies, Janes return couldnt have come
at a better time.
Every winter, monarch butterflies across the northern corners of
the continent fly south to the mountains of central Mexico. The
migration patternwhich, for some, stretches over 3,000 milesis
a natural wonder, not replicated by any other butterfly in the world.
how the monarchs homing system works; the butterflies that
return to Mexico are often the great-grandchildren of those who
made the trip the year before. Many of the winged creatures fly
through Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas before plunging through
Mexico. And, as has now been widely reported, many are dying before
they can complete the full trip.
A dead monarch butterfly,
photographed in Mexico (ENRIQUE CASTRO/AFP/GETTY)
Monarchs cover the vegetation of their Mexican winter territory
so densely that its easier to count them by area than insect-by-insect.
Last week, researchers in Mexico announced
that the winter monarch population had dropped by 25 percent between
2019 and 2020, declining from 2.6 hectares to 2.1 hectares. In 2018,
the monarchs covered 6.1 hectares. In the 1990s, they regularly
covered 20 hectares. Something is going very wrong.
For those who have been observing and researching the monarchs
for decades, like Dr. Chip Taylor, head of Monarch Watch at the
University of Kansas, the numbers are troubling but not surprising.
Taylor, who has been studying pollinators since 1969 and monarchs
in particular since he started Monarch Watch in 1992, nearly predicted
this years drop on the nosehe estimated the postmigration
numbers would clock in at 2 hectares flat; they came in at 2.1.
already depleted flock is set to return through areas in Texas
and Oklahoma that are still reeling from a catastrophic late-season
The issue, which he has documented extensively on Monarch Watchs
blog and acknowledged in our conversation as being pretty
complex, is basically about food. Monarch butterflies have,
for centuries, relied on milkweed and nectar plantsin Oklahoma
and Kansas, this includes sunflowers, ironweed,
and a host
of othersto fuel their journey up and down the continent.
With no milkweed or nectar-rich options to restore their fat reserves,
monarchs cant flyand if they cant fly, they cant
migrate or serve their role as pollinators. But landowners often
see milkweed as an annoying weed and remove it using herbicide.
There is also the issue of reduction via overgrazing on cattle landswhich
is a problem given that the butterflies traditional path takes
them through Oklahoma and Texas, two states that lead
the nation both in terms of beef production and cattle population.
And then theres the weather. This years already depleted
flock is set to return through areas in Texas and Oklahoma that
are still reeling from a catastrophic
late-season winter storm. Taylor has spent the past week trying
to coordinate with fellow scientists on the ground in South Texas,
hoping to compile a detailed report of whether the soil underneath
the snowpack has been frozenif so, it means that much of the
vegetation that monarchs rely on for rest and fat replenishment
will have been killed, leaving the butterflies with nothing to fuel
their return journey north.
You can have great resources, Taylor said, referencing
the needed plants along the migration path, but if the weather
kicks the daylights out of the population in March, youre
just not going to have a good population at the end of the summer.
[In 2019], it was easy to predict that the population was going
to be down because we had the slowest migration that weve
ever seenit was too hot in September, and then there was a
drought in Texas. And we just knew that was a double whammy.
Climate change, in Taylors view, is going
to make all of this a lot worse. The question is, what are humans
doing to help?
Butterflies have never been far from Breckinridge. Her husband,
David Bohlken, an economist by training, began
raising them at his home in Minnesota nearly three decades ago,
when he was in the Christmas tree business with his father. Butterfly
farmers feed and raise the animals and then safely transport them
to customerstypically zoos and museums for full-grown butterflies,
though they also produce caterpillar kits for schools. When Breckinridge
and Bohlken moved back to her family home on Muscogeewritten
in the tribes language as Mvskokeland, they built what
would become the Euchee Butterfly Farm. The name was a nod to Breckinridges
great-grandmother, Neosho Parthena Brown, who, at 16 years old,
became the first of what has now been five generations of Euchee
women to oversee the 160-acre plot.
Breckinridge continued to work at her publishing job remotely,
but she began to get more engaged and interested in the notion of
monarch conservation, leading her in 2013 to start the Natives Raising
Natives project. The project focused on sustainable tribal butterfly
farming, with special emphasis on youth education and outreach to
local communities about the importance of the pollinators. The more
she started to think about her work, though, the more she realized
needed to be done.
That year, while attending a butterfly farming convention in San
Antonio, Breckinridge listened to Taylor give a presentation on
monarch conservation. She was impressed, noting that Taylor wasnt
just an expert on the subject but an expert teacher, too. The kind
who could explain complex migratory patterns in an engaging, accessible
way. The kind the group she had been envisioning needed.
Monarch conservation, and the conservation of pollinators on the
whole, has not been a priority for the United States until relatively
recently. Monarch Watch blog posts written by Taylor as early as
of the issue of deforestation in the butterflies Mexico wintering
grounds, and called
for the U.S. to encourage and fund milkweed restoration on
private and public lands. The issue drew coverage from The
New York Times in 2011, probing the explosion of herbicide
overusage and the introduction of nonnative Roundup Ready
crops to the monarchs migratory path. Yet in 2013, the federal
or state funding, let alone the desire, to make widespread conservation
efforts possible still did not exist.
Jane Breckinridge with
lepidopterist David Bohlken and TAP program manager Collin
Spriggs at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Deep Fork Wildlife
Refuge COURTESY OF TRIBAL ALLIANCE FOR POLLINATORS
As tribal nations and citizens have long had to do in the absence
of U.S. governmental action, Breckinridge took the reins herself.
After the convention, Breckinridge sent Taylor an email, asking
for his help in creating a monarch migration trail through tribal
lands in Oklahoma. Taylor agreed to lend a hand, but he warned Breckinridge
that a capacity issue might arise.
He said, You dont have the milkweed seed resources,
you dont have the nectar plant seed resources, you dont
have any of that locally sourced. And thats how we do restoration
work. You dont have greenhouses or hoop houses that are willing
to grow the seeds out in organic, pesticide-free environments. You
dont have anybody thats done site preparation, you dont
have anybody thats done a monarch conservation plan in your
state, Breckinridge told me. So that was just
Breckenridge, undaunted, joined with Taylor to found Tribal Environmental
Action for Monarchs, or TEAM. The idea was to create a coalition
among the tribal nations along the migratory path, which required
a hefty organizing plan. TEAM also needed the funding to address
the capacity issue Taylor had spoken of. And so began
a years-long campaign of grant-writing and networking.
During one meeting with an official in the Creek Nations
small-business development office, Breckinridge was introduced to
a consultant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who advised
her to apply for a rural business enterprise grant.
A few months later, that same consultant introduced Breckinridge
to Dr. Carol Crouch, a Salish Kootenai citizen and Oklahomas
state-tribal liaison for the USDAs National Resources Conservation
Service. The timing of their meeting was fortuitousthe Obama
administration had just issued the June 2014 Pollinator
Memorandum, which declared that it is critical to expand
Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses
and help restore populations to healthy levels.
Chip and I were driving around, he would kind of look out the
window muttering, If I were a little monarch butterfly,
where would I find something to eat?
Crouch, who Breckinridge says has the chief of every tribe
in the state on speed dial, took Breckinridge under her wing.
Along with her husband and her mother, Breckinridge spent three
years driving across the state with Taylor, visiting any and all
tribal communities that would have her. Crouchs support offered
the legitimacy she needed to get TEAMs foot in the door. And
on those trips, Taylor helped Breckinridge see the scope of the
This was still very early, just trying to get support for
a big grant and really forming the team, she said. While
Chip and I were driving around, he would kind of look out the window
muttering, If I were a little monarch butterfly, where would
I find something to eat? And he kept on saying that and kind
of muttering. And at first I thought, OK, this, this is a
little bit eccentric, Ive got this professor muttering while
Im driving. But then I started looking at it the same
Bermuda grass as far as the eye could see. Entire ranges grazed
down to the nub. Lawn after lawn of nonnative grasses, the product
of over-normalized herbicide treatments. The casual but vast destruction
of the monarch habitat was impossible to unsee, and it fueled Breckinridges
sense of urgency. By the end of that initial outreach phase, she
had put over 30,000 miles on her car.
A red-spotted purple
(Limenitis arthemis astyanax) feeding on late boneset (Eupatorium
serotinum), a crucially important fall-blooming nectar source,
at the TAP demonstration garden (COURTESY OF TRIBAL ALLIANCE
Every time we were out there meeting with tribal leadership,
if you say, The monarchs are in trouble, their numbers are
plummeting, theyd say, OK, what do we need to
do? It was never Why? Breckinridge said.
Whereas among a lot of white folks and white agencies, people
werent there yet in 2013. I think they are now. But back in
2013, 2014, they were just like, No, we just got rid of the
milkweed in our pastures. Were so happy. Why bring it back?
This was how the initial TEAM coalition was built among the Muscogee
(Creek), Chickasaw, Seminole, Osage, Citizen Potawatomi, Eastern
Shawnee, and Miami tribal nations. A 2015 grant proposal written
by Taylor landed TEAM $248,007 in funding from the National Fish
and Wildlife Foundation. It was the last grant that Taylor helmed
for TEAM; he has since taken on a consulting role, with Breckinridge
assuming control of the organizations funding.
Taylor jokingly says he has created a monster, lauding
Breckinridge as an extraordinary grant writer. But as
she immersed herself in grant-writingIts still
me and a lot of coffee, Breckinridge said this weekshe
discovered that the discriminatory stigmas and roadblocks facing
Native organizations are eerily similar to those facing tribal citizens.
Most of the people who are evaluating our grants and rating
and ranking them, theyve never been here before, Breckinridge
said. We got questions like, Are yall living in
teepees? Do you have shoes? Can you even read and write down there?
Wait, you have oak trees, its not all desert there?
The craziest questionsand Im not kidding about the teepee
TEAM, now known as the Tribal Alliance for Pollinators, or TAP,
is now a well-oiled, well-funded machine. In 2018, it secured $93,080
in grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
and another $149,500 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Resilience
Program, per Tulsa
World. The funding TAP has secured is being used to help tribal
nations not just obtain the resources and materials necessary to
build their own hoop houses and greenhouses and farming supplies,
but send representatives to take part in hands-on training sessions
with Monarch Watch and others, teaching community members skills
needed to continue the work on their own.
While the state and federal governments have since begun the play
catch-up, the tribes were the first ones to get things going
here and, to date, I think, still have planted more milkweeds back,
they planted more nectar plants back, more acres of habitat restoration,
Breckinridge said. According to the TAP website,
the tribal coalition is responsible for planting 50,000 milkweeds
and 30,000 native wildflowers, which stand in addition to the 142
seed types the collective now has stored at a seed bank at the Euchee
TAP began with a handful of people deciding that tribal nations
could, and should, step into the void the federal and state governments
had left on monarch conservation. Now its looking like it
could be a model for conservation efforts far beyond a single species.
Theres a reason TAP had to be a coalition of tribes, instead
of an organization tied to a single tribal nation: Its extremely
difficult to get organizations and federal agencies with limited
budgets to take up a niche-but-important issue like monarch habitat
restoration one tribal nation at a time. When it came to building
that coalition, the Euchee farms central location in the statetwo
hours away from everything, Breckenridge saidhelped.
For instance, maybe the Citizen Potawatomi Nation cant
get an expert on organic pest management and greenhouses to come
in and speak to them, Breckinridge said. But if TAP
contacts the university and says, Were going to have
20 different tribes there, its going to be 40 people, can
you come in and present and provide guidance on these issues?
we can get all sorts of really interesting people participating.
The TAP modelof tribal nations partnering with one another
and with state and federal agenciesis one worth considering
for a range of environmental and climate-related issues, not just
monarch conservation. Breckinridge cited the Standing Rock protests
as proof that when we speak with one voice, it carries a lot
further and louder than we did when we work singly. Its
also been a crucial example of allowing tribal nations to engage
and lead on issues, rather than having an outside organization,
or more often the federal government, come in and dictate the terms
of a project.
The approach is not to tell people what to do but to provide
them with an opportunity to learn and to take the mission up themselves,
Taylor said. Then we can help them implement whatever vision
The model should likewise serve as a proof of what tribal sovereignty
can be at its best. The very Mvskoke allotment lands that TAP started
on, at Euchee Butterfly Farms, are part of the land that stood at
the center of the McGirt v. Oklahoma Supreme Court case last
summer. In McGirt, the high court declared
that the Muscogee (Creek) Nations reservation was still intact,
as Congress, despite using the Dawes Act and Curtis Act to privatize
tribal lands and deconstruct tribal governments, failed to dissolve
its 1868 treaty. (I cried and cried, Breckinridge said
of the day the McGirt decision was handed down.) Where once
the introduction and existence of allotment lands stood as a monument
to the federal mission of assimilation, the land that Neosho Parthena
Brown and her descendants clung to can be officially recognized
as a part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation once more.
Breckinridges work is an act of conservation, yes; its
also a direct expression of the sovereignty that for so long has
been denied to Indian Country.
Supporting threatened species with tribal-run initiatives can be
a form of decolonization in action. As Breckinridge noted in our
conversation, the message she heard from environmentalists and conservationists
while living in the Twin Cities was almost entirely focused on leaving
land and resources wild and untouched. But that is not how the land
was prior to colonization, when Indigenous nations and communities
across the country actively managed and stewarded their natural
relatives. Being a Native person, land is not something separate,
Breckinridge said. We live here, were a part of it.
Seminole people were recently endangered ourselves. Now that
the butterflies are in trouble, its our turn to lend a
hand and help them out.
TAP is not the first to attempt to organize monarch conservation,
even if it was the first to do so in Indian Country. But the track
records of state and federal conservation efforts are patchy, to
say the leasthence the current state the butterflies and other
pollinators find themselves in today. What TAP has managed to do,
in just a few short years, is alter how tribal nations in Oklahoma
view the lands they maintain control over. Tribal nations like the
Eastern Shawnee have since published
their plans for pollinator restoration programs. The Chickasaw Nation
as efficient a milkweed planting program as exists in the nation.
As Breckinridge said, the work has gone beyond being an issue of
good policies and has taken on a sense of communal responsibility.
Early on, during the first meetings of the TEAM coalition,
every senior person from each tribe who was represented was asked,
Why are you doing this? Breckinridge said. And
everybody had different reasons. But Assistant Chief Lewis Johnson
of Seminole Nation said, We Seminole people were recently
endangered ourselves. Now that the butterflies are in trouble, its
our turn to lend a hand and help them out.
Breckinridge, who finally left her old magazine for good in the
summer of 2020 to focus full-time on TAP, hasnt taken a proper
vacation day in five years. She knows theres plenty more to
be done. The tribal nations on their own cant be expected
to account for the fact that climate change has already begun to
drastically alter the monarchs population numbers and migration
patterns. What they can do, though, is continue to serve as guiding
light for other inter-tribal organizations and for other governmental
initiatives. One day, perhaps, the world will be filled with people
who look out their windows and ask that same question Breckinridge
and Taylor asked on their car rides: If I were a little monarch
butterfly, where would I find something to eat?
Alliance for Pollinators
Tribal Alliance for Pollinators (TAP) is a new non-profit organization
born out of the groundswell of support generated by the Tribal Environmental
Action for Monarchs (TEAM). TEAM is a coalition of seven tribal
partners Chickasaw, Seminole, Citizen Potawatomi, Muscogee
Creek, Osage, Eastern Shawnee and Miami Nations who are restoring
monarch habitat on their lands with the assistance of Monarch Watch
and the Euchee Butterfly Farm. The TEAM coalition has restored over
50,000 milkweeds and 30,000 native wildflowers to date on 350 acres
Nick Martin @nicka_martin
Nick Martin is a staff writer at The New Republic.