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WVU Extension Service specialist fuels monarch conservation efforts

Sheldon Owen speaks to crowd of people at Monarch Summit at WVU Jackson's Mill

Morgantown, W.Va. -- The future of West Virginia’s state butterfly, the monarch, is in danger. Populations have declined so much that it is at risk of being placed on the endangered species list — a move that could have regulatory and economic impacts for the state.

According to West Virginia University Extension Service Wildlife Specialist Sheldon Owen, most experts estimate that the Eastern population of monarchs has declined by 90 percent over the last 20 years. Not only does that mean there’s less of this distinctively beautiful insect, but it also means that another pollinator and one of nature’s most notable educational models is at risk.

However, West Virginia has started paving a path for the monarch’s comeback story, and it starts with agricultural producers, West Virginia’s landowners, and a weed — milkweed to be exact.

“Historically, the milkweed has sometimes been viewed as a nuisance for property owners and farmers around the state, but it’s a bit of double-edged sword in that milkweed is also the only plant monarch caterpillars feed on,” said Owen. “By making small changes in conservation practices, such as leaving milkweed patches or planting milkweed in marginal areas with native flowers, monarch caterpillars can thrive. Then when they metamorphose into butterflies, they will travel from patch to patch to take in nectar that fuels their migration.”

While small changes like this can be impactful, Owen helped organize the state’s inaugural West Virginia Monarch Summit in early March at WVU Jackson’s Mill. The meeting started the wheels turning in creating a realistic monarch conservation plan with key members from West Virginia’s industries, state and federal agencies and interest groups. Together they discussed and identified existing conservation efforts, while providing a venue for ideas and solutions that could benefit the monarch moving forward without adversely impacting agriculture or other industry.

“The Summit was a huge success — we brought together stakeholders who can promote conservation and increase the habitat for not only monarchs, but all our native pollinators,” said Owen. “We saw what was already in place and then identified areas where we all can improve to truly make a difference.”

Owen noted that while this was the first comprehensive meeting, many surrounding states are also working on the problem. By working closely with those states in the future, he hopes to see a total resurgence in monarch populations through broad awareness and conservation.

“The monarch’s migration is really one of the more amazing stories in nature, and these butterflies can cover thousands of miles,” said Owen. “So it’s not only a West Virginia problem, but we can certainly take proactive steps and help lead and shape the efforts to save this butterfly.”

No conservation effort is too small. Owen added that home gardeners can contribute by planting small patches of milkweed and native flowers like purple coneflower, giant sunflower and mountain mint.

“Every little bit helps in a situation this serious,” he said.

The WVU Extension Service provides educational opportunities to local communities through offices in all 55 West Virginia counties. WVU Extension Service’s programs are accomplished in partnership with individuals, families, businesses, civic groups and governmental organizations statewide and throughout the nation.

To learn more about WVU Extension programs, visit, or contact your local office of the WVU Extension Service. Follow @WVUExtension on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news.