Millions of monarch butterflies flock to El Rosario sanctuary in Mexico for the winter. (Nicole Hamilton)

A year ago, things were not looking good for monarch butterflies. A final analysis of data from their 2013 North American migration showed that the number of these famous black-and-orange butterflies was at its lowest since 1993, when people began counting.

But the past 12 months have held some positive news for the species. Tentative reports on their annual fall migration from Canada and the northern United States to Mexico show that the population is growing once more. And last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the agency responsible for managing wild animals and their habitats — announced that it will conduct a year-long review of the species to see whether the government should step in to help conserve it.

Depending on the outcome of the review, the monarch could become protected by the Endangered Species Act, which means that the butterflies and their habitats will be safeguarded by law.

“It’s a really great thing for awareness,” said Nicole Hamilton, executive director of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy in Virginia. Her organization was among those that signed the petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking for this review.

But gaining the government protection is a very long process, said biologist Chip Taylor. He’s the director of Monarch Watch, an organization based at the University of Kansas that works to protect the butterflies by tagging them during migration and restoring their habitats.

A monarch caterpillar crawls on a milkweed plant, the species’ primary food source. Kids can help monarchs survive by planting milkweed. (Nicole Hamilton)

Rather than wait, both Taylor and Hamilton said, the best way to help the monarchs is to get regular people involved in restoring something that’s crucial to their survival: milkweed. It’s a flowering plant on which monarchs feed and lay their eggs.

Farmers, gardeners and kids all have a role to play in this effort. Farmers can use fewer chemicals called herbicides, which kill milkweed, and gardeners can plant milkweed in their gardens. Monarch Watch runs a program called Milkweed Market, which distributes free milkweed plants to schools with information on creating a butterfly habitat.

Are you interested in protecting monarch butterflies? With a parent or teacher, visit or to get more information on ways to help.

Sarah Kaplan