One U.S. Park Ranger’s Personal Quest to Save the Monarch Butterfly

Meredith Rutland Bauer

The best place to find Florida park ranger Scott Davis on any given Saturday is on the side of a two-lane road, botany kit in hand, hunched over and staring at weeds while trucks and minivans speed past. These aren’t just any plants Davis, a ranger at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, is examining. He spends his workday, and many hours beyond, trying to save milkweeds, and the dwindling population of magnificent monarch butterflies that depend on the plant to survive.

Davis heads up the Florida refuge’s Monarch-Milkweed Initiative, created in 2014 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began evaluating the monarch butterfly as a potential addition to the endangered species list (a decision is expected in 2019). St. Marks is located in the state’s panhandle and is known for its annual monarch festival, when swirling clouds of orange-and-black monarchs fly through on their way to winter in Mexico. “The vast majority of monarch butterflies that are born east of the Smoky Mountains will flow through this particular area,” Davis says.

But the monarchs are in crisis. About 20 years ago, experts estimated about 1 billion monarch butterflies were left in the U.S., Davis says. As of this year, those numbers are down to around 145 to 150 million butterflies. Davis says, “145 million monarchs is nothing. Storm events can kill 400 to 500 million in a night.”

Other pressures, such as deforestation in Mexican forests where the butterflies spend the winter, contributed to the decline, but milkweed destruction is a significant factor, according to Davis.

And so, Davis has made it his professional and personal quest to restore milkweeds in his corner of the state. Day after day, he, his co-workers, and a cohort of volunteers work on cataloguing milkweeds, growing more saplings, and reintroducing this beleaguered plant into the North Florida landscape.

“Anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of my personal time is invested in furthering this project. What [the butterflies] need doesn’t check out for the day, so I can’t check out either,” he says. “If I don’t remain steadfast in my efforts, a number of things slip through the cracks.”

“It’s a part of my lifestyle,” he adds.

St. Marks volunteer Kara Driscoll, a Tallahassee resident, says Davis’s unflagging work ethic to protect the region’s monarchs and milkweeds is inspiring.

She tells me Davis regularly drives across the state to talk to environmental groups and goes before city councils to push for local milkweed conservation. “He’s a hero … He works tirelessly to save everything.”

Driving him is the belief that the little plant is essential to the ecological health of the East Coast. Monarch butterflies alight on milkweeds to lay eggs, and the emerging caterpillars thrive solely by eating milkweed leaves. After transforming into butterflies, they are able to consume a variety of nectar as populations migrate each year from the Northern U.S. and Canada down to Central Mexico’s forests.

Aside from being pretty insects beloved by everyone from children to indigenous Americans to tattoo artists, monarch butterflies help pollinate local crops and wild plants during their migrations by flying from plant to plant in search of nectar, a function that is becoming more important as other pollinator populations, such as bees, dwindle nationwide.

“There are immense implications to the work that we do,” Davis says.

But milkweeds are in danger. The plants and their small bunches of white flowers once spread across the South. They were a ubiquitous, if inconspicuous, plant, a garden-variety wildflower peppering parking lots, front yards, and farms. That changed in the late 1990s with the introduction of genetically modified crops that could withstand pesticides, making it easy for farmers to use weed killer with abandon. An unintended consequence was that these pesticides destroyed milkweed plants that grew beside crops along the butterflies’ migratory path.

As milkweeds died off, so did monarchs.

“What was created over the course of millions of years, was lost in moments to the advancements of bulldozers,” he says. “Observing large losses of [insect and plant] life initiated my drive to work tirelessly to save what [milkweeds] remained along the highways of America.”

Often, the only place milkweeds still exist without human assistance is along roadways, so Davis frequently finds himself scouting out state highways to record new populations. And the work never seems to be finished. “I’ve spent the last two years surveying, profiling, and coming to understand 21 milkweed species,” he says.

Davis’ full-time-plus commitment reflects a refuge system that, according to the nonprofit National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA) “has been underfunded since its inception.” On its site, the NWRA cites a “crippling operations and maintenance backlog of more than $3.3 billion,” and laments chronic understaffing, “which has left more than one third of refuges without any onsite staff.”

Davis says federal funding for St. Marks has dipped over the years, and projects like his, lacking a high public profile, sometimes take a back seat. Looking ahead, in its 2018 budget proposal the Trump administration seeks significant funding cuts to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages refuges like St. Marks. Combined with the administration’s interest in opening national wildlife areas to private commercial activity, the stewards of our now-federally protected lands—like Davis—may soon have to pursue their missions with still fewer resources.

The refuge budget is being cut and things are not likely to get better soon, and this is also the case for other agencies,” he says.

Cutbacks or not, says Davis, “I feel like milkweeds and monarchs were put in my path and now I’m sort of responsible to pilot this project.”

Over the past few years, Davis and his co-workers have been rewarded by seeing more milkweed plants spring up along roadways and in people’s gardens. He says he’s been sent milkweed seeds from all over the nation, and he often mails them to others so eager environmentalists can plant milkweeds in their backyards. While this year saw a dip in monarch butterfly populations, overall the insects’ numbers are up 600 percent from their low point in 2013. And though the long-term trend still shows an ominous decline in monarch numbers, those working to restore butterfly habitats are hoping the bump over the last few years represents a step away from the brink of extinction.

There are more monarch protection workers in the Northeast than in the South, says Davis, so the work done at St. Marks is especially important—without these efforts the migrating monarchs “aren’t going to make it.”

For Davis, seeing monarchs flying through St. Marks is thanks enough. “Knowing that I’ve helped to save so many plants and so many butterflies from dying or disappearing makes it all worth it for me.”