Skip to Content

Road Tripping for Monarchs in Utah and New Mexico

Nov 16, 2016


  • Community Science
  • MJV Partnership News
  • Population Trends

Article written by Gail Morris, Southwest Monarch Study.

There are blank pages in the monarch butterfly book in the western United States. This summer the Southwest Monarch Study (SWMS), with support from the Monarch Joint Venture (MJV), has been working to fill them.

Data from thirteen years of SWMS tagging and monitoring monarch habitats in Arizona continue to offer new information about the monarch migration to Mexico and California and the monarch population in the state. SWMS workshops with the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project and US Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada over the past two years have resulted in new recoveries of tagged monarchs in California. But there were still missing pieces to the puzzle in Utah and New Mexico, and a limited number of citizen scientists participating in those areas. We (SWMS) took road trips to these states to host workshops that would engage citizen scientists in the Southwest Monarch Study and learn more about the mysteries of southwestern monarchs.

Rather than one large workshop in a major city, we decided to also visit smaller rural areas in both Utah and New Mexico to encourage citizen science involvement across the region. There was already a small number of people tagging monarchs in each state and so we planned our workshops around them. Each educational training event featured a two-hour workshop including monarch biology, conservation and the importance of citizen science involvement for all ages. In particular, we offered opportunities for citizen science participation that included the SWMS, Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, Monarch Health, Xerces Project Milkweed, Journey North and the many educational offerings available through MJV. Local monarch butterfly interest or habitat restoration efforts were already underway in both Utah and New Mexico, and our workshops always included time to hear from and connect with these local efforts.

Since Utah was further north and would see migrating monarchs earlier, we scheduled the first workshops in July to catch this migration. Our original schedule included Cedar City, two workshops in Salt Lake City, and our last one in Moab. As fate would have it, Tucker Thomson from Salt Lake City emailed us at just the right time: “We would love to get involved with your tagging efforts.  I see information about monarch migrations from AZ and NV, but have not seen any information from UT.” How perfect could the timing be? Tucker grabbed the baton and promoted the monarch workshops across the state by contacting newspapers and working with local and national government offices. Interest from Logan jumped in – could we work in their city, too? So the trip became five workshops in six days, a whirl-wind tour.

At our first rest stop as we drove into Utah from northern Arizona, a monarch flew across the parking lot – this was July 11th. We knew then that our road trip would be good. As anticipated, smaller towns had lighter attendance but this allowed for more time for questions and planning future outcomes with interested participants. Larger cities created opportunities to reach more people. In Salt Lake City, ten-year-old Avery Ellsworth and her parents brought monarch larvae of different instars to show everyone, as well as showy milkweed, A. speciosa. Seedlings Avery grew from seeds and was selling were quickly snapped up!

We learned a lot about monarchs in Utah, too. During summer heat waves in the Salt Lake City area, for example, monarchs seem to disappear and head to the higher elevations in the surrounding mountains. As temperatures cool once again by late August, monarchs move back into the valley furiously laying eggs. As we drove from place to place we found monarchs flying alongside us through mountain passes and along rivers.

Our road trip to New Mexico took place in a similar fashion. We contacted Steve Carey (author of “Butterfly Landscapes of New Mexico”) who worked with us to schedule workshops in Farmington, Albuquerque (2), Los Alamos, San Antonio and Los Cruces/Messilla – six workshops in eight days. Both Steve and Julie McIntyre (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) worked to promote the workshops in addition to local outreach by each venue. As we traveled from site to site we were able to see monarchs and stands of milkweeds, especially along rivers and as far south as Messilla in mid-August.

A total of 170 people attended the workshops in Utah and New Mexico, and they were hungry for more! Our evaluations showed not only an extremely positive reception to monarch conservation, but also a motivation and willingness to participate in citizen science projects and create and/or expand monarch habitats. We were blessed with rich stories of personal encounters with monarchs on their migration or during historic moments in participants’ lives.

We distributed over 3,000 blue Southwest Monarch Study tags to citizen scientists in these states to help us all learn more about the monarch migration in the Southwest. We didn’t need to wait long to hear the first of hopefully many reports of tagged monarchs as a result of their efforts.  A freshly eclosed monarch tagged in Nibley, Utah (near Utah’s northern border) on September 1st was spotted at the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge on September 15th. This was a southeast flight of 152 miles. The surprise for us was that the tagged male monarch that we thought would have been in reproductive diapause was instead part of a mating pair. Could this be part of the early movement south before the peak migration for this location? Our journey raised more questions than it answered.

We look forward to more sightings and recoveries this winter. We are grateful to MJV for their support to make our road trip monarch workshop tours possible and for the many people we were privileged and honored to meet along the way.


The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo provided by Gail Morris, 2015.