“There are a lot of really intriguing unanswered questions about how this critter with a brain the size of a pinhead probably has the computing ability of the best Mac,” said Lincoln Brower, a Sweet Briar (Va.) College conservation biologist who’s studied monarchs for 55 years. “And Karen’s really good at fostering that popular interest.”
In 2009, Oberhauser got a grant to start another initiative, called Driven to Discover Citizen Science, in which students collect data on larvae and caterpillars.
Laura Molenaar, a teacher in New London, Minn., who runs one of the programs, says students are more engaged when they’re doing “authentic science.”
“My students are not just going through the motions, and as a teacher that’s so exciting,” she said. “The monarch is so iconic, they can all connect with and experience it in a real way.”
Hope in a ‘world of wounds’
Lately, though, Molenaar’s students have had little to engage with.
Last summer, the Minnesota monarch population crashed. This summer, Oberhauser says, rates started low and are staying low. Monarch larvae have been found on less than 5 percent of milkweed plants in the state, according to her data.
As a scientist, she knows that the monarch isn’t a top concern for all conservationists.
“If butterflies went extinct tomorrow, we wouldn’t notice from an ecological perspective,” she said.
Still, she questions the notion that only species with greater ecological and economic value are worth saving. And she’s haunted by something that influential conservationist Aldo Leopold said: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
What would it take to take to stem the use of milkweed-killing herbicides? Is it possible to halt the development of 6,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat every single day? Or limit the deforestion of monarch overwintering sites in Mexico?
The odds seem stacked.
But Oberhauser hopes that she and the many other scientists and citizens who are fighting for monarchs can be resilient, too.
If hers is a world of wounds, Oberhauser isn’t alone in it.
“Citizen science makes a lot of people who might not have a formal ecological education understand what humans are doing to the world,” she said. “That makes them want to do something about it.”
It may be that Oberhauser and her colleagues are documenting the demise of the monarch butterfly. But she isn’t giving in. Not yet.
“You have to be hopeful,” she said, “because otherwise, what would be the use? I’m doing what I can, and I can feel good about that. If it’s not enough, at least it’s something.”