As a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and academic programs, the Monarch Joint Venture works on many fronts to facilitate a unified approach to North American monarch butterfly conservation. Behind the scenes, the MJV Board of Directors keeps the long view in mind, supporting MJV’s vision and operations as we carry out conservation priorities through collaborative education, habitat, and research initiatives.
Today we celebrate educator and author Ann Hobbie, who served as chair of the MJV Board of Directors between 2018 and 2021, and whose involvement with monarch conservation goes back another decade. We asked incoming board chair Dana Boyle to interview Ann about her history with the MJV and the conservation initiatives and actions that inspire her. Ann, thank you for your service and we look forward to what comes next in your monarch conservation journey!
DB: What brought you to monarch conservation?
AH: I grew up near a couple of vacant lots and as a child I saw a lot of monarch caterpillars there. I just loved those big, juicy fifth instars, and I was intrigued by them as part of the ecosystem of my neighborhood.
Then, when I was teaching fifth grade in the 1990s, I sat next to Karen Oberhauser at a PTA meeting, since her kids attended the same school. Karen ran the Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities at the time. We hit it off, and she asked if I’d be interested in having her visit my classroom. She talked to my students about monarchs, and we were so engaged! Next thing I knew, Karen had received a National Science Foundation grant to teach teachers about monarchs and develop a curriculum for using monarchs to teach science, and she asked if I’d like to be part of that. What we developed that summer was the original Monarchs and More Curriculum that MJV has updated and continues to offer today. So that’s what tied me into monarch conservation, and that brought me back to my childhood memories of these great creatures.
DB: What made you say yes to leading the first MJV board?
AH: In 2008, there were many entities, including researchers, nonprofits, and government agencies, all working separately on monarch conservation. With a declining monarch population, it became clear that to impact conservation most effectively, we’d need to coordinate our efforts - coordinate what monarchs need and a conservation plan for achieving that. So MJV was founded out of the trinational effort among Mexico, Canada, and the U.S., which resulted in the North American Monarch Conservation Plan. Initiated within the U. of MN under the direction of Dr. Karen Oberhauser, the MJV partnership grew year to year, and its Monarch Conservation Implementation Plan became a central unifying strategy for monarch conservation.
Ten years later, in 2018, MJV made the decision to become a free-standing and independent nonprofit. [MJV Executive Director] Wendy Caldwell led that exhaustive undertaking and approached me to help her form the organization’s first board of directors. I had seen Wendy in action over the years in my work with the Monarch Lab, and also witnessed the quality of her leadership in this seminal moment for the organization. It was easy to say yes.
DB: What surprised you the most as your experience in monarch conservation grew?
AH: What amazed me the most was watching the science change over time. Scientists don’t know everything! For example, one of the first questions people ask about monarchs is “what are those gold dots on the chrysalis for?” Guess what? We’ve studied it, and nobody knows. What’s so interesting about natural history is that those gold dots might not be for anything! Humans tend to think that every physical feature must be for something, but it may just be that it simply stayed in the gene pool because it wasn’t adverse.
The more I learn, the more I realize all that I don’t know. And that scientists often don’t know. You can really see that at play with the western monarch population right now. Nobody can say exactly why the population rebounded in the way it did this year.
DB: What else has changed in the field of monarch conservation?
AH: We used to think monarchs were most vulnerable at their overwintering sites because of the sheer number of individuals in a relatively small place. But we know now that the North American monarch population is vulnerable in all parts of its annual life cycle including summer breeding grounds, the migratory flyway, and overwintering sites. Addressing habitat loss and other threats throughout the monarch’s range is crucial, as is working together within our own countries and internationally to provide and protect monarch habitat for the survival of the species. Research is helping us understand how all of these pieces fit together and impact one another, so trinational collaboration is vitally important.
DB: What are you most proud of from your time on the MJV Board?
AH: I am proud of the growth of the organization overall over the past 13 years, from university program to stand-alone nonprofit, its growth in staff and scope, its robust board that represents many different areas of expertise, and a partnership that has grown from 10 organizations to 113 and counting.
My favorite example is in 2020. The New York Times called Wendy when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled on the application of monarchs to the Endangered Species Act. That journalist came to Wendy and also other leaders in the field to get their expertise on the matter, and it is a piece of journalism that really gets the monarch story straight better than almost anything else I’ve read.
I’m also really proud of the educational handout resources MJV produces. These are free resources on how to garden for pollinators, understanding the monarch life cycle and conservation, planting and finding milkweed, and all the ways that MJV answers public questions and curiosities. Also our FAQs, the way that it’s been there to support the public in learning. So many great free resources available to everyone.
DB: What are some of the best teaching tools for educating young people or anyone about monarch conservation?
AH: I’m really proud of MJV’s Monarchs and More Curriculum. Teachers use the curriculum widely in schools, and some of them create school pollinator gardens, which are a huge teaching tool. Another wonderful project is the Symbolic Migration. Journey North is an MJV partner that monitors seasonal science including the North American monarch migration. As part of that, the symbolic migration is a project that teaches about the migration while also connecting schoolchildren from different regions. Schoolchildren in the U.S. create paper monarch butterflies and write messages on them, and they’re sent down to a school in Mexico near the eastern monarch overwintering groves where they’re kept for the winter. And then in spring the students in Mexico create new messages and paper butterflies and send them back north. From Louisiana all the way up to Ontario this is going on.
One of the reasons I wrote my own book about monarchs was to provide an accurate, engaging learning opportunity for people of all ages. I designed Monarch Butterflies (Storey Publishing, 2021) to be understood at multiple levels, so I love when adults can read it and get something out of it and little kids can do the same. There are resources at the back of the book that point readers to different ways they can take action to protect monarchs. That’s the purpose of the book.
DB: Have you ever had a magical moment with monarchs?
AH: In January 2020, the last thing I did before everything shut down for the pandemic, is I used my book advance money to go to Macheros, in the state of Mexico near Michoacan to see the overwintering sites. I stayed at the JM Butterfly B&B and I had just an incredible experience going to Sierra Chincua, El Rosario, and Cerro Pelon butterfly sanctuaries.
That particular year, Sierra Chincua was particularly magical. I just stood there, and at first you look at the trees and think, it’s just a tree, but then you see it’s full of butterflies. And the sky is full of them. You could hear them all around - if you bring your hand to your ear and rub your fingers together, they make that whispery sound.
Being there was a great reminder of the way we share the planet. There are very few species - in fact I can’t name another one besides monarchs - where the very same organism shares a vital environment with so many geographic places. The very same individual in that fall migratory brood relied on my back yard, and the arboretum, and the roadside along pastures in Iowa, and those mountains in Mexico. There are no borders where this organism is concerned, and I think that is probably the most profound lesson I came away with.
DB: What do you think is the most important action people can take to help protect monarchs?
AH: Creating pollinator habitat and protecting insects from threats like insecticides. I have a dream of seeing not just people’s yards and gardens as pollinator habitat - which is the really logical place to start - but places of work, especially around big corporations, just changing the landscape. How about putting a small prairie on your corporate campus? Why not? Monarch conservation will take everybody doing that. Roadsides, rights of way, power lines. Just changing the way we think about green space, and understanding that we’re all connected, from insects to people to whole ecosystems.
As we tip our hats to Ann’s indefatigable service, we also welcome incoming MJV Board Chair Dana Boyle. Dana is a Minnesota Master Naturalist, following a career as a Community Engagement and Business Development professional. She sees monarch protection as a critical pathway to promote the reintroduction of native plants throughout our country. Dana Boyle has documented her journey converting her property’s outdoor space to a native plant oasis for birds and pollinators by way of a Lawns to Legumes grant.