Every time a monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis and unfurls its delicate wings, Karen Oberhauser stops to watch.
For Oberhauser, a University of Minnesota conservation biologist, an insect that weighs no more than a paper clip but flies to the mountains of central Mexico is a symbol of resiliency.
“Think about the relationship of this individual butterfly to the big picture of the phenomenon,” she said. “It is such a fragile organism that does such an amazing thing.”
Oberhauser has dedicated her life’s work to that fragile organism.
The 57-year-old Roseville woman runs the university’s Monarch Lab, as well as a series of projects that have uncovered some of the monarch’s mysteries. She’s rallied conservationists, engaged educators and galvanized a community of “citizen scientists” to track and count monarchs. This summer, she earned the White House’s “Champion of Change” award.
“Karen melds different worlds,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, which aims to preserve invertebrates and their habitat. “She’s a top-notch researcher who can balance her hard science with teaching and outreach. She really is this shining light that has helped us all get together.”
But while her career has blossomed, a bitter irony underlies it: Despite her efforts, monarchs are in steep decline in Minnesota and most of the nation.
Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed, which has seen a 58 percent decrease across the Midwest between 1999 and 2010 because of herbicide use and loss of habitat. On what milkweed remains, Oberhauser’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project has found record low rates of larvae and caterpillars. She and other conservation biologists say that while the monarch probably won’t go extinct, the future of its migration could be in jeopardy.
If that happens, Oberhauser said, we would lose one of the most popular, most accessible ambassadors to the natural world. The disappearance of migrating monarchs ultimately could foster a sense of futility about conservation efforts, such as Oberhauser’s.
“I don’t just want to be someone that documented the demise of monarchs,” she said.
Bonding with butterflies
Oberhauser’s initial interest in the monarch was purely scientific. She was curious about how species invest in offspring, and one of her undergraduate professors at Harvard College recommended she study the monarch.
It was only after years of research that she understood how much people connected with the colorful butterfly and its unlikely migration. She quickly realized that the monarch could be a tiny but effective tool to make natural science relevant again.
That’s when her connection to monarchs deepened.
Up went massive butterfly cages in her Roseville yard. Out went most of the lawn, which she replaced with pollinator- and wildlife-friendly plants. Oberhauser even found the time to manage 80 acres of prairie restoration in western Wisconsin.
“She struggles a little bit with being not busy,” said her daughter, Leah Alstad, who teaches high school in Milwaukee. “She pulls invasives to unwind, I think.”
Butterflies have been a part of her daughters’ lives, too. In fact, Oberhauser uses their childhoods as a frame of reference for her work. When Amy, her eldest, went to kindergarten, Oberhauser offered the teacher a few butterflies for the classroom. Soon all the teachers wanted some.
That led Oberhauser to start the Monarchs in the Classroom program, which offers curriculum templates and teacher workshops. Monarchs are a great teaching vehicle, she says, because their migration, which wasn’t discovered until 1975, is both fascinating and mysterious.
“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.”