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Cambridge program aims to help beloved monarch butterflies spread their wings

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Cambridge program aims to help beloved monarch butterflies spread their wings

A Cambridge program aims to help the beloved monarch butterflies spread their wings.

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    CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (WCVB) -- The monarch butterfly is perhaps the most well-known insect, but that might not be the case in years to come.

Scientists say populations of the eastern monarch have dropped 80 to 90% in the past two decades, and climate change is part of the reason.

“The monarch butterfly — we consider it to be that canary in the coal mine,” said Tim Puopolo, a ranger with the city of Cambridge.

That early warning of danger came in July when the International Union for Conservation of Nature added them to the endangered species list.

“They are the most well-traveled insect in North America,” Puopolo said.

Known for its bright orange color and incredible annual migration, the Eastern Monarch travels 3,000 miles from New England to central Mexico each year. It’s a journey that makes them vulnerable to climate change.

“As they spread out from Mexico every spring, one branch of that migration could reach a dead end if there's extensive pesticide use, wildfires, torrential floods, destruction of the milkweed plant or not enough meadow flowers to drink from,” Puopolo said.

He works with the butterflies as a way to promote our native ecosystems and leads a raise and release program from eggs to adults.

Puopolo watches over them at every stage and, when ready, tags them — marking each with an identifying serial number.

“What we're tracking is to see is how many make it to Mexico and where they might stop along the way,” Puopolo said.

It gives the best estimate of how many monarchs are left in the wild. It’s critical insight in determining that we have lost so much of the monarch population — a decline due not just to weather extremes like heat, drought or floods, but also loss of their main food source — milkweed.

“This milkweed is full of a toxic, white, latex-based sap,” Puopolo said.

A monarch caterpillar can eat an entire leaf per day.

“The decline in milkweed can be easily correlated with the decline in the monarch butterfly. Losing the monarch butterfly wouldn’t just be losing one butterfly, but the first domino falling,” Puopolo said.

Experts say that is why raising and releasing monarchs in Cambridge is so important.

“If we work hard to reverse the status of this being an endangered species and bring the monarch back, we could do other great across the continent,” Puopolo said.

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