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From Ky. To Mexico: One Butterfly's Journey

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

This story begins, as many do, when a dog needed a walk. 

Tri Roberts retired in 2016 and walks his dogs at the Woodford County park. One day, while chasing one of his dogs into a nearby field, he came upon a patch of milkweed.

Looking down, he noticed some monarch caterpillars inching their way across the leaves, munching away at their favorite snack. In fact, it’s their only snack: without milkweed the larva would not be able to develop into monarch butterflies. 

A few days later, Roberts returned to the park and saw a farmer had mowed the field and inadvertently killed the caterpillars and their habitat.

“That’s a big deal nowadays because the monarch population has dropped by, some say 80% since the mid-90s,” Roberts said, which the Center for Biological Diversity confirmed in February. 

Roberts set out to rebuild the habitat. He appeared before his local parks board and received approval to plant and maintain a pollinator garden on about an acre of land at the Woodford County park. 

Around the same time, he heard about Kentucky Wild, a conservation program where community members work alongside researchers to support vulnerable wildlife. Last October, they held a tagging event in Perryville, where Roberts helped to catch and tag a few dozen monarch butterflies. 

To tag them, Roberts nets a butterfly then gently grabs them with their wings folded together.

“And very carefully put a small sticker tag on the bottom of one of their wings, which in no way affects their ability to migrate,” Roberts said.   

The number is then relayed to Monarch Watch, non-profit monarch butterfly research program. 

The tagging helps scientists learn more about timing and pace of the migration, where they’re migrating from and the places that might be critical to supporting their migration.

And as it turns out, one of the butterflies Roberts tagged last October flew more than 1,600 miles to the El Rosario Butterfly Preserve in Michoacán, Mexico, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. 

Each year, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from North America to Central Mexico to overwinter in high-elevation fir forests. Researchers with Kentucky fish and wildlife have tagged more than 600 monarchs, but it was one single butterfly that Roberts tagged that was Kentucky’s first ever recovery. 

“They’ve been tagging for years and no butterfly has ever been found until they found mine in Mexico, so I feel honored that that has happened,” Roberts said.  

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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