SOMA Controlled Rearing Discussion 2018

The following are emailed responses regarding the outreach from Xerces about concerns with captive, or controlled rearing of monarch butterflies to SOMA on July 9, 2018. The responses are quite informative, honest and heartfelt. We share this to those interested, in the spirit of listening to others to learn and make your own informed decisions.

We start with wonderful replies from Xerces and from Dr. David James, followed by others in random order. Contact information has been removed from some for privacy.

Reply from Emma Pelton (Xerces)

Hi Robert,
I appreciate the thoughts you shared---these topics merit discussion and I certainly agree that is a balance to be struck between rearing as a source of inspiration, education, platform to inspire conservation, etc. and rearing as a distraction from effective conservation and potentially even a risk to the population itself.

While it does sound like we're on the same page concerning captive breeding; I think we're still coming from different perspectives about where to strike that balance on captive rearing's value---while the educational and personal engagement aspects of rearing are really important--we are NOT against rearing a few monarchs!---the perspective I'm trying to share is that: rearing is unproven as a conservation strategy, but it carries known risk. And thus promoting rearing as conservation---directly or implicitly---isn't the best way to direct folks' energies to help conserve monarchs and may even be harmful. I believe that responsible rearing also includes NOT rearing a lot of monarchs. That's the message I'd like to see out there more often in circles of folks rearing monarchs. And, like you said, rearing is already a popular activity, so helping nudge people to really examine why they're doing what they're doing is what I'm after. If SOMA wants to help that conversation move along too, I think that'd be fantastic. It's not a specific ask as much as a general approach: it'd be great if SOMA folks wanted to incorporate limits on the numbers they rear into how they themselves approach rearing and/or represent it to others. At the end of the day, it's up to everyone to decide where they find that balance; but if folks want to take their cues from major monarch conservation organizations and researchers who study this stuff full-time: the answer is based on what we know, rearing isn't the answer and it could even be harmful.

Xerces will be putting out a blog on this topic in the coming weeks--if you feel it'd be of value to share with SOMA volunteers, I'd appreciate it.

Sorry I missed your call on Friday--I was out of the office; but happy to talk with you more about this now or in the future. This is a conversation for the long-game of helping monarchs. Best and thanks again for sharing in the conversation!

From Dr. David James…

Hi Emma,

Thanks for checking in with me on this subject. It’s a complex subject I think and no black and white, just shades of gray…

I agree with you that our main conservation approach should be habitat restoration and ensuring safe habitats and I believe most people are aware of and believe in this as the best way to help Monarchs. If they want to rear a few (or more) Monarchs as a way to be engaged, feel helpful or as part of education, I think this is fine too.

I believe if rearing is done responsibly (keeping everything clean etc) then ONE generation of 10 or 1000 , done just once (no repeat generations) is fine. The chances of significant disease developing during rearing is low and most released adults will be healthy. Its only when multiple generations in a single season are attempted that disease problems may increase. This then begins to emulate the ‘factory butterfly farms’ which I think we are all against! In fact it was largely opposition to butterfly farms and their practices that stimulated creation of the jointly signed statement.

I don’t think ‘mass’ rearing is happening among PNW people. I have an expanding group of many hundreds of opportunistic citizen scientist rearers/taggers in OR, WA and ID and they will rear anything from 6 to maybe 200 individuals (in a single rearing). I really think this is a good thing for Monarchs, research and them! Butterflies are being tagged of course (and providing scientific data) and we are adding to the population (in a small way) as I alluded to in the paper. However, I am certainly not promoting it as a way of conserving the species and I know that my rearers do not do it for that reason. They are all far more focused on establishing Monarch habitats in their gardens/parks so they can host monarchs into the future. However, releasing reared individuals is a definite bonus in their eyes because they prevented/reduced mortalities during development. They all know that only ~5% survive in the wild so see it as a good thing if they can raise that number… I can’t argue with that!
If ‘captive rearing for conservation’ was all that people are doing, I would agree that we need to change the emphasis to habitat restoration-maintenance…. But it is not. Everyone recognizes restoration-maintenance of habitat IS the fundamental way of improving Monarch populations. I know of no one in the PNW who is using gravid females to obtain eggs.. all of my volunteers collect eggs from their gardens or local parks. There is no ‘mass-collecting’ happening either. It is almost an impossibility to ‘mass collect’ Monarch larvae in the PNW anyway!

As a side note, I (and many of the citizen scientists I work with) found one part of the Executive Summary statement in your recent ‘Managing for Monarchs in the West publication “Widespread planting of milkweed is often the response to help Monarchs. However, this is not a recommended strategy across the western US” to be at odds with what the grassroots level is doing in the west: ie planting milkweed everywhere they can!

If there is any real ‘ramping up of rearing to help Monarchs’ going on, it must be in the east. I know there are a few Facebook pages based in the east who’s contributors do appear to be doing a lot of rearing. And then there are a few large scale commercial type concerns that seem to be planning mass rearing for the future. I fully support trying to dissuade these kinds of enterprises along with conventional factory-style farms. Rearing Monarchs for conservation is not a theme in the west.

I think there is a large difference between Monarch rearing in the subtropical south and temperate north. Subtropical rearers it seems are more likely to rear more than one generation a year and have greater issues with disease etc. I think the alarm you and Xerces have over rearing stems from the curriculum and problems shown by subtropical rearers. In contrast, I think temperate rearers rear much lower numbers and have far fewer problems simply because they are constrained by lack of Monarchs and climate.

I fully support sending a message that mass rearing is not a viable conservation strategy for Monarch populations. The only viable conservation strategy is one that enhances existing habitat or creates new habitats in locations that Monarchs visit or migrate through.

I also think that people should never be denied the opportunity to touch and rear Monarchs. I have witnessed first-hand the impact that holding and rearing Monarchs can have on human lives, be it incarcerated lives or young lives (did you read ‘Journey’s Flight’?).

Thank you for allowing me to comment on this subject.

Best Regards


Dr David G James
Associate Professor of Entomology
Department of Entomology
Washington State University
IAREC, Prosser WA

Interesting philosophical discussion. I'm also not an advocate of controlled rearing. I thinking helping during vulnerable times does make sense.

E Professor Emeritus, SOU

Thank you. So interesting. I certainly don’t want to do anything that would harm the species so I am glad that someone who knows more than I do is analyzing the effects of rearing monarchs. So far I have only reared 5, currently in chrysalis stage. Is the user friendly guide you mentioned available online and what and when is the half day workshop you made reference to?

Robert and Tom,
I just wanted to take a moment to thank you both for the responses you have so thoughtfully crafted around this issue. I read what you both have written and appreciate that you were able to illustrate what we do and why we do it, acknowledge concerns, highlight the benefits, but mostly, keeping the dialog so open, positive, and collaborative. Politics are no fun, and I am feeling the brewing conflict around this issue. I really think that if information and rationales can be mutually shared with courtesy and open mindedness, this issue will ultimately work out fine. But I really appreciate the time you are taking now, as it would be a shame to be perceived by the scientific conservation community as being somehow irresponsible or unreceptive to their views, and I appreciate how diplomatically this issue is being explored between Xerces and SOMA. Really good work you guys!

Despite the very compelling points Emma brings up, I can't help but remember that it was my first experience raising monarchs in the 5th grade at Phoenix Elementary school that initially prompted me to be the monarch advocate I am today... :-). I would not have formed that personal and protective bond by viewing them from a distance or on yet another depressing endangered species TV program. I feel good about that!

Thanks again for the good work, monarch ambassadors! T

Thank you for responding to Emma, Robert. I don't know where she got the idea that captive breeding and rearing of 100, 200 or 1,000 monarchs had been promoted at the Sisters, OR event. If it was from a participant, then that person clearly missed the message that captive breeding and rearing mass quantities for release is NOT okay. Though there were pictures in one slide show of such an operation, it was clear to me that such caterpillar farms were not okay. It was also clear to me that cats should not be purchased from such a producer. It was also clear to me that intervention through controlled rearing should ONLY be considered for naturally produced eggs or larva as a method that could reduce mortality. D

I stand with you. I am captive rearing and tagging 100’s each year until I find them commonly in my garden. I see no down side here. They do not eat any crops of value to anyone but them and make our world both fascinating and beautiful. What an unexpected admonishment. A

Thanks for sharing. I do believe that our captive rearing program gives us an opportunity to educate the public about the plight of monarchs. We don't encourage visitors to raise monarchs, but we do talk to folks about habitat restoration and planting milkweed and other pollinator - friendly plants in their gardens.

We test for OE and work to release healthy, tagged butterflies. I agree with Emma in saying that the small-scale captive rearing being done by us and others may not reach the ideal of conservation, but the opportunity for education (we hosted at least 15 school groups last spring) seems like a justifiable reason to captive-rear these beautiful monarchs.

Barbara Slott- Elkton Community Education Center

(John) - Have to say I agree with both Robert and Thom - and you. Rearing large groups and releasing in to wild populations has many possible negative effects. It’s a controversial methodology that has been debated for a long time. But there is very little controversy about small educational rearing by individuals. And that being said, the biologists who brought back condors, by rearing small families, had many nay-sayers.

I think to help monarchs, what Emma and Xerxes Society support, in nurturing habitat, is of course the foundational necessity. Saving only one species out of an integrated interdependent system does little to solve over reaching problems that affect not only monarchs but all pollinators as well. Preserving habitat, educating the public and teaching respect for our environment are absolute necessities in the long run, not just for monarchs. These actions also have far reaching and exponential effects. In addition "guessing" about what needs to be done, or assuming humans can "fix" a threatened population without supporting the ancient evolutionary system from which it grew, is ludicrous.

The nature center has long been a non-release facility, following both the guidelines of Xerxes and US Fish & Wildlife and our APHIS permit. But recently, with the severity of the down turn in Monarch wild populations, we have begun offering small educational rearing kits. Within our pavilion, the butterflies lay many more eggs than we can safely rear. When we just leave them in the pavilion, they are mostly eaten by ants and spiders before they reach pupa stage. Because we have these "extras", it seemed appropriate to offer them in a limited way to responsible people who commit to releasing the butterfly when it ecloses.

What Emma says seems to make sense: "While we may all have slightly different approaches to monarch conservation, it'd be great if we were all on the same page about rearing as valuable in limited numbers for tagging, but not an invitation or encouragement for people to rear hundreds of monarchs by moving gravid females or eggs around or mass collecting caterpillars from the wild. "

It seems to me each of us are saying the same thing - small rearing and releasing has value, but large mass rearing and releasing could be dangerous for the wild populations.

Warm regards,
Patty Downing, Biology/Environmental Studies BS
Executive Director,
Rusk Ranch Nature Center

I think that Xerces and most members of SOMA agree on most points. Obviously, quality habitat is of great importance as it is for most species. Dr. James believes that lack of milkweed in California is a large contributing factor to the declining population.

The friendly disagreement seems to center around “controlled rearing.” It seems to me that this should just be another tool in the chest. It must help if done responsibly. So I agree with Tom’s statements below. I have released 350 monarchs over the past 3 years. I have had very little problem with OE, tachinid fly, and other diseases/pests (less than 3%). I do not partake in “captive breeding.” All of my cats and a very few eggs have all been collected on my own property which is rich in native ASSP and ASFA and pollinator habitat. One year I did collect a few cats from the “wild” and most of them were OE infected or had tachinid fly. I have also participated in the WSU tagging program and 3 of my tagged monarchs have been found in California.

Thanks for all that you do. S

Hi Tom,
Well, I read the Xerces Society stance and while everyone is entitled to their opinion I think there are some fatal flaws in their thinking. To in any way connect captive breeding and captive rearing is totally inappropriate to start with-shouldn't even be in the same sentence!!

My way of thinking is that we would all seem to agree that monarch butterflies are threatened - for several reasons. In order to solve any problem, you must first have information. Due to the recent efforts by Dr. David James and the citizen scientists that have helped in his program, we are only now learning about the migration patterns of the western monarch population. How can we ever hope to solve this problem until we know where they are going? Research is vital. Tagging is the most important step in learning how to save the monarchs. Tagging just 10 individuals, or even a few more as she suggests, is not effective. With a relatively low recovery rate, it is necessary to tag as many as possible in multiple locations.

Most conservation efforts for all species involve human intervention in an attempt to mitigate the problems that we humans have caused. It is the most common and useful way to try and save species. Would the condors still be around if we hadn't intervened and raised their young in captivity? What about all the fish hatcheries that are doing so much to save wild salmon runs? Most conservation efforts focus on trying to stabilize what populations remain, while also trying to improve habitat issues. Her concerns just don't make sense to me.

We would love to not need to do this, but until monarch numbers return to a maintainable level, raising monarchs from wild eggs and caterpillars provide a boost to their population numbers and is a valuable research tool. Population collapse of any species is rather exponential. It becomes harder and harder to sustain a population as numbers dwindle. I am seeing that in my own garden this year with fewer monarchs in general. Females aren't finding males and are laying infertile eggs. Given the monarch's huge migration area anything to increase the numbers even if by a few hundreds or thousands can only help.

I don't see the negative in responsibly rearing monarchs. The adult butterflies are returned to the location they were taken from and sent on their way. We are just giving Mother Nature a helping hand. :) :) Also, SOMA and other organizations are doing a lot to educate everyone on how to safely rear the eggs and caterpillars. An increase in disease doesn't seem to be an issue at all.

By raising monarchs a small army of individuals are also planting milkweed and nectar plants. The word is spreading as groups like SOMA are getting more press and offering workshops. I will continue to do my part, small as it may seem, to try and preserve this amazing species by raising, tagging and releasing monarch butterflies back into the wild.

Sorry I got on a rant, but this hit a nerve. Her approach seems utterly passive. Just saying "plant more milkweed” is not enough at this stage. I hope Dr. James will continue with his program, and not be bullied by the Xerces Society stance. It is really discouraging to me that they would not consider the broad implications of their actions and be against scientific research and efforts to save the monarchs. We humans have caused this mess and it is up to us to try and fix in any way that we can!! Action is needed and I admire you and all your efforts on the monarch's behalf. B

"I do share some of Xerces feelings regarding the need for monarch conservation to be focused on habitat. That is something I very much agree with and that is why I continually work hard to help protect important pollinator habitat on public land. There is a tendency for monarch lovers to only focus on gardens, mainly in town, and that won't be enough for monarchs in the long run. Also, many people do have a false sense that rearing alone will save monarchs. I know SOMA folks generally don't think that, but it is an overall problem. There is, also, something to be said for keeping wild creatures wild, and I agree with that, but I do think that monarchs reared in small numbers can be helpful. I am supportive of conscientious rearing if it is paired with habitat creation, that is why I rear myself; however, I would gladly give up rearing if USFWS lists monarchs as endangered. I think the listing is way more important because it will help leverage real habitat conservation on public and private land on a meaningful scale, which is what monarchs need to recover, both at their overwintering sites in CA and during migration.

There is also a very real reality that many people don't rear in an ethical or safe way. I have known people who have had serious disease issues from lack of cleanliness and when folks do that it actually is detrimental. I think unsafe/detrimental rearing is probably way more common than we realize because there are many people who attempt rearing on their own without any guidance or without anyone in monarch advocacy circles knowing.

I think SOMA's response to Xerces is fine. I may have a slightly different take but in general I don't have a problem with what you wrote on behalf of SOMA. I do think this is an important discussion for folks working on monarch issues to dialogue about. I am very glad that Xerces reached out. We need to continually have a critical eye and keep scientific evidence in mind."

Boy, you and SOMA folks do a great job getting folks interested in a nature subject. Your meetings and interchange is outstanding for such a limited subject.

After I responded to you I thought more about the monarch rearing issues. Even though I do agree with the validity of a lot of points raised by 'experts' about various risks of controlled rearing, I also think these concerned parties need to lead interested volunteers in what they think are productive monarch recovery steps. We don’t want to lose volunteers because some expert thinks their time and money is not valuable. If experts want leadership roles, they want to find recovery steps that the volunteers want to perform,. Recognize and promote good ideas and activities arising from volunteers.

Public engagement is key for monarch recovery. Wise public engagement, with trusted, committed experts helping guide the course, is even better. G

Thank you to all! Keep the lines of communication open and flowing. S-

Thank you, Robert, as always, for your clarity on this matter. You as well, Tom. As someone who has had a fascination with monarchs her entire life and is in despair over their declining numbers, I am grateful for those who are ethically and safely rearing monarchs. We claim that things could get better if folks discontinued their use of harmful pesticides and if they create more habitat, and I believe that. But we are in dire straits. Habitat continues to decline with increased development and monoculture farming, and I am surrounded by pesticide-loving people. This includes glyphosate which is shown to impact pollinators. I’m curious about Xerces’ stance on glyphosate as I have as of yet to see their input. I have witnessed bees nectaring on plants that were recently sprayed. Last year, I pulled two cats off of milkweed that had been sprayed. One did not survive, and I have no idea as to the quality of life of the other. The reality is, in this country, despite the best efforts of many of us trying to change behaviors, the ubiquitous presence of pesticides in our environment is changing the landscape of pollinator numbers.

The monarch butterfly’s decline is the result of human interference, so therefore, IMO, humans are responsible for their recovery. If, for the short term, we need to rear them inside to help with their recovery, then this is one avenue toward resolution. Not just for educational purposes or for enjoyment, but for stepping in and taking action. I don’t want to have to wistfully explain to my grandchildren, one day in the future, why there are no longer any monarch butterflies. Like I mentioned, if humans are intervening in a negative way, then there is a responsibility to offset those actions in a positive way. While there may presently be an awakening in parts of the US regarding protecting pollinators, the change is slow to manifest, and there are likely more folks who do not see the connection between their behaviors and environmental consequences (I grew up in such a place in PA, and not much has changed). Last year, I widely shared my home-based monarch rearing experiences, and it increased interest in protecting monarchs. I didn’t inspire many people to rear, but have since learned that many have increased habitat at home, and I was able to get some neighbors to discontinue using synthetic pesticides. I say this, because of the countless vicarious benefits of rearing monarchs. I share your concern for captive breeding and mass rearing, but it’s a disappointment to me to learn that Xerces does not support appropriate rearing as a form of conservation. I see this as a missed opportunity. If done properly, humans could right a wrong, and Xerces could lead the way. Why not find some funding to do actual research on grassroots conservation and learn for certain, one way or the other, about the outcome of citizen scientists’ contributions? If captive rearing is "not a proven conservation strategy," let’s scientifically find the proof and validate the argument.

Thanks for all you do,


Kenda Swartz Pepper