The goal of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s inaugural monarch butterfly campaign was to raise and release 2,013 of the threatened orange-and-black butterflies — a symbolic number to match the first year of an initiative that the organization hopes to expand.
This month, as the campaign came to a close, the conservancy announced that participants had well exceeded the goal. About 2,500 monarch butterflies were released across Loudoun County over the summer, organization President Nicole Hamilton said.
For years, Hamilton has tracked the number of monarch butterflies she sees in Loudoun — an annual tally that has steadily declined. This year, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy launched its first organized effort to help bolster the butterflies’ presence in Northern Virginia, focusing on educating the community and creating monarch “way stations” — gardens of milkweed plants and wildflowers that serve as breeding and feeding sites for the insects.
Hundreds of people across the county got involved in the effort, Hamilton said.
“We were thrilled. We definitely didn’t expect quite so much of an outpouring,” she said. “As we started to do the different educational programs and engage more people in their communities, folks just really latched on to it, and could see that there’s a chance to make a difference.”
Monarch butterflies, famed for their extraordinary annual migration between Mexico and the United States, have been increasingly threatened by several factors, including changing climate patterns, illegal logging in the Mexican forests where the butterflies spend the cold winter and the widespread use of herbicide sprays in the United States that kill the insects’ milkweed breeding grounds.
Northern Virginia residents can’t do much about climate change or illegal logging, Hamilton said, but they can definitely help the butterflies by planting milkweed and creating much-needed breeding and feeding sites. Many of the campaign volunteers told her that they have often responded to calls for action to help threatened species that are far away, such as wolves or polar bears, Hamilton said.
“But with this campaign, they felt like they could really make a difference that was tangible — they could see it,” she said. “And as they talked to their neighbors and friends, it really took off on its own.”
At the beginning of the year, the campaign had 20 monarch way stations at schools and community sites across the county, Hamilton said. By the end of August, there were more than 60. About 3,000 milkweed plants were added to the community.
Hamilton is planning to meet with Loudoun public school officials this month to discuss expanding the campaign. This year, 20 schools participated, she said, but she would love to see a way station at every public school in the county.
“That would make Loudoun County the first school system in the United States with a way station at every school,” she said. “What a fine example to set.”
Ultimately, Hamilton said, she would like to see the campaign spread beyond Loudoun.
“This year was all about building that foundation and getting our materials and our handouts together, and we didn’t really have enough time to look beyond our county borders,” she said.
Hamilton said she is confident that there is interest among wildlife enthusiasts in neighboring jurisdictions. Her observation was echoed by Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, who said the organization has created a one-acre butterfly garden with host plants such as milkweed that will be waiting to receive the migrating insects in the spring.
It’s only one garden, but it’s intended to deliver a message to residents across Prince William.
“Please do this at home,” Hosen said. “It’s a demonstration to say that gardening for wildlife can be very attractive . . . while providing habitat for butterflies who are in big trouble.”
The Prince William Conservation Alliance is also planning to publish a field guide, in print and online, to help gardeners learn how to create butterfly-friendly gardens, Hosen said.
Hamilton said she has received inquiries from wildlife enthusiasts in West Virginia and other parts of Northern Virginia who heard about the Loudoun monarch campaign and wanted to join in it or replicate it.
“We’re going to help them with that,” she said. “I’m willing to give anyone what they need to replicate this and make it better and take it even further.”