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Hoping to Let the Butterflies Flutter By Monarchs Flock to Tosa Site; Activists Aim to Preserve It

September 14, 2008

By ANNYSA JOHNSON

Wauwatosa — Barb Agnew remembers standing on this same spot on the Milwaukee County Grounds a few years ago, in the shade of this grand and verdant sycamore tree.

She turned to the north, and there she saw them: hundreds of monarch butterflies, in a glorious cloud of orange and black, flitting up over the hill and into astand of trees.

Not everyone who visits the Monarch Trail that Agnew has created on this expansive public land is treated to such a spectacular show.

But they are witness to one of nature’s most enduring mysteries: the annual migration of millions of monarchs from points north to the Transvolcanic Mountain Range of central Mexico.

Over the next two weeks, thousands of monarchs are expected to roost on the trail, recognized as an official way station by the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch, en route to their wintering grounds in the south. The public is invited to watch.

But it may be a limited engagement.

Agnew’s is a renegade venture. She’s a squatter, really, with no formal approvals from the county. She’s garnered support from a few key officials, including Parks Director Sue Black and county Supervisor Jim “Luigi” Schmitt. Even the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and the state Department of Transportation have drafted plans that skirt key features of the trail, at least for now.

But early drawings for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Engineering School show buildings, walkways and manicured grass in its place.

“It would be such a loss,” said Agnew, a Wauwatosa florist who has raised native Wisconsin butterflies in her shop for more than a decade.

“We’re losing the meadows and the spaces required for the butterflies faster than they can adjust. If we don’t take steps to save them, we could lose the migration.”

The Monarch Trail is ground zero in the latest showdown over the northeast quadrant of the County Grounds, a 235-plus-acre tract that has inspired conflicts between the forces of development and conservation for more than a decade.

The most recent proposal calls for UWM to carve out up to 83 acres for its engineering school. Tom Luljak, vice chancellor of university relations, said UWM is still negotiating the purchase and that no decisions have been made on the size of the parcel or placement of the buildings.

“But we are absolutely committed to working with all of the groups that have expressed concerns about the environmental impacts,” he said.

The Monarch Trail, which begins just west of the Milwaukee County Parks Department headquarters on Watertown Plank Road, had its start in Agnew’s own love of the Lepidoptera. Not just the brilliant monarch — the supermodel of butterflies, if you will — but the mourning cloak, the tiny, eastern-tailed blue, the pearly crescent and others.

Each fall for 10 years, Agnew has trekked to that lone sycamore, just east of the historic Eschweiler buildings, binoculars in hand, to stare upward at its branches.

“The dog walkers thought I was crazy,” said Agnew, as she led a tour through shoulder-high goldenrod and boneset on the grounds last week. “They were always asking me, ‘What are you looking at.’ “

And then they’d see hundreds of monarchs clinging to the branches, roosting for the night.

Agnew began formalizing the trail two years ago, fearing parts would be buried in the regrading of the grounds after MMSD’s massive detention basin project.

She better defined the trail, already tamped down by hikers and dog-walkers, working almost daily with a weed whip and pruning shears. She got permission from Black to erect colorful banners at the entrance. The Parks Department kicked out a news release, and visitors have been streaming in — sometimes by the school busload – - ever since.

Retired MPS Principal Don Janicki hiked the 1.25-mile trail Thursday with his granddaughters, 5-year-old Annabel on his shoulders and 3-year-old Gracie on his hip.

“Look, girls, there they are,” he said, and they extended their little fingers in an effort to lure them to land.

Two Eagle Scouts have lent their brains and brawn to the project, building an information kiosk at the trail head and a footbridge, and planting trees and 1,000 new endangered milkweed plants to attract and sustain the monarch.

Visitors are invited to tag butterflies for research — they sign up and buy tiny stickers from Monarch Watch — and to share their sightings in a journal at the trail head.

And Agnew promotes the trail on the Web site www.thebutterflystore.net, where she posts migration data, peak times for maximum butterflies and visitors’ photographs.

“It’s become a really exciting community,” she said.

Former Park People President Jim Price is working with Agnew and others to form a friends group that would raise money to maintain the trail.

A veteran of the County Grounds battles, Price objects to UWM buying any more than the 66 acres designated as a development zone in Wauwatosa’s master plan for the grounds, and is adamant that any development avoid the trail.

One area that could end up being contested is a small section of the development zone where an Eagle Scout planted the endangered milkweed, plants Price grew from seeds.

Price and Agnew deny encroaching intentionally on the development zone in an effort to create something too controversial to destroy.

Still, he said, “It would take a certain amount of hubris for anybody to bulldoze an endangered species planted by an Eagle Scout.”

Whatever the outcome, it will likely be a postscript in the coming documentary “The Butterfly Trees,” by filmmaker Kay Milam, who shot footage last year of Agnew plucking a caterpillar from a milkweed plant with a “gargantuan bulldozer in the background.”

“She’s a classic example of the importance of an individual,” Milam said of Agnew, “and how one person can make a difference.”

THE MONARCH

Danaus plexippus: Its scientific name means “sleepy transformation” in Greek, referring to its metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Its name is inspired by the Greek myth of Danaus, in which the daughters of the King of Libya fled for Greece; the monarchs’ migratory journey is reminiscent of the daughters’ flight.

Diet: Monarch caterpillars eat exclusively milkweed, of which there are more than 100 species.

Life span and migration: Most adult monarchs live only about four to five weeks, but each year, there is a “Methuselah generation” of migratory butterflies that survives seven or eight months. This generation migrates each fall from Canada and the United States to the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico. They begin the journey north in February and March, starting anew the cycle of short-lived summer generations. Science has yet to solve the mystery of migrating monarchs, which find their way to the overwintering sites without having been there before.

Habitat destruction: Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas professor with Monarch Watch, warned in April that the migration could quickly collapse unless urgent steps are taken to end the devastation of the monarch’s vital sources of food and shelter. He said illegal logging and deforestation are destroying the butterflies’ overwintering grounds in Mexico and that habitat in the United States is being lost to development at a rate of 9.4 square miles a day.

Monarch Watch: More information can be found at www.monarchwatch.org

Sources: World Wildlife Federation; Enchanted Learning; Science News

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