In butterfly tagging, the monarch is king

BRUSHY CREEK – Until Saturday afternoon, he was just one of hundreds of monarch butterflies living in the vicinity of Brushy Creek State Recreation Area, doing the things that butterflies do so well: Flutter about, look pretty and munch on plants such as milkweed.

Then the net came – and life changed forever.

He is now SCY250.

Getting tagged was part of a program led by Stephanie Shepherd, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife diversity biologist.

“Only the sixth generation travels,” Shepherd said. “It’s one of the wonders of nature.”

By travel, she means extensively.

The butterflies have wintering grounds in Mexico, she said. On their way there and back they will sometimes roost in trees by the hundreds.

Their numbers are in decline, their population a measure by how much of an area they cover in Mexico.

Their peak was in the 1996-97 season; they covered over 120 hectares.

“Last year it was only 1.98 hectares,” she said.

A hectare is 2.47 acres.

More than 50 people participated Saturday.

Elliana Foelske, 8, of Waverly, was one of them. She attended the tagging event with her grandmother, Collette Ellison, also of Waverly.

Ellison said her granddaughter is a big fan of not only butterflies, but all sorts of other insects.

“I hope she goes into this field,” she said.

She will collect them but she doesn’t keep them.

“Every time I’ve had them I let them go,” Elliana Foelske said.

She also owns her own set of monarch wings.

“I got them just today,” she said.

She opted to take them off for the field collecting, though; she didn’t want to upset the monarchs.

“They’ve probably never seen a giant butterfly,” she said.

Rhonda Umthun, of Eagle Grove, attended the event with her daughter, Emily, 11. She enjoyed watching her daughter chase the colorful critters with a net.

“They’re hard to catch,” Umthun said. “You have to be patient.”

A slightly different tactic paid off for Isaac Landwehr, 10, of Fort Dodge, who attended the event with his father, Mike Landwehr.

“He caught it,” Isaac Landwehr said.

The first one they brought to be tagged turned out to be a viceroy, a species that somewhat mimics the monarch in appearance.

“We’re going to keep trying,” Mike Landwehr said before they headed back out with an empty net.

Once he got over the indignity of having a sticker on his wing, monarch number SCY250 took off back into the wild.

If he’s ever captured again, whether in Iowa or at the monarch’s wintering grounds in Mexico, that number printed on his wing tag can help researchers learn more about the species.