More than a thousand monarch butterflies with stickers attached to their wings are fluttering south from the Mid-Columbia.
If you spot one, entomologist David James would like to know.
The Washington State University associate professor in Prosser has been working for several years to learn more about where the butterflies spend the winter as fewer and fewer of them are seen.
A month ago, the Center for Biological Diversity and others filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for monarch butterflies.
In the past 20 years, monarch butterfly populations are estimated to have declined by more than 90 percent. The problem is loss of habitat, James said.
The butterflies particularly like milkweed, relying on the plants to lay their eggs and the caterpillars that will become the orange and black butterflies feed on the leaves of the plant.
But in the Midwest, spraying of herbicides has drastically reduced the milkweed in corn and soybean fields.
Milkweed still found is along roadways in Washington, but California, a major breeding ground, and Oregon routinely spray most roadside vegetation, including milkweed, James said.
The monarch butterfly population in the western U.S. historically has been smaller than in the East, and less is known about the butterflies' migration path from the West, James said. Monarchs are one of the few butterflies that migrate.
James said he believes the monarchs released in the Mid-Columbia may head to California for the winter, and possibly all the way to Mexico. In 2012, one of the tagged butterflies was reported in Utah, suggesting that some butterflies might take an alternate route south to Arizona or Mexico.
This year, he expects to release about 2,500 butterflies through early October.
He's captured about 100 wild monarch butterflies to tag. Most are raised specifically for his research, with the added benefit of increasing the monarch butterfly population.
James raises some in Yakima where he lives, and some are raised at WSU Prosser. A volunteer in British Columbia also rears some for him.
But he also depends on the inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. James captures female monarchs, which lay eggs on the milkweed plants in his lab. Those plants are supplied to the penitentiary, with about 40 inmates there helping to raise the caterpillars into butterflies.
The rate of reported sightings of the tagged butterflies on their way south is low. James figures that someone will spot and report to him about one butterfly out of 200.
If you see one, he recommends snapping a photo with a mobile phone and emailing it to him. That gives him good data without disturbing the butterfly. The tag includes an email address and a serial number for the butterfly.
He's already started to get some reports of sightings in the Mid-Columbia this year.
"But we'd like to alert more people to be on the watch for them in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Arizona," he said.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HanfordNews