FORT HOOD, Texas - Flight 954 has been cleared for take-off.
Citizen scientist Katherine Carvajal gently placed tag AGWC 954 onto a monarch butterfly before it continued its journey to Mexico. In one of the longest multi-generational, multinational migrations that covers 3,000 miles, Fort Hood plays a special role for the eastern monarch population.
Carvajal joined Soldiers and families on Oct. 15, as citizen scientists, helping to catch and tag monarchs with biologists and seasonal staff from the installation's Adaptive and Integrative Management Team.
“It’s great to have the support of Fort Hood Soldiers and their involvement with this citizen science project,” she said. “That small part of tagging one butterfly can make a big difference, when you add it up all together. It’s an experience that everyone should be a part of.”
Traveling from Canada and funneling through Texas, monarchs rely on Fort Hood’s native nectar-rich plants like the maximillian sunflower, cowpen daisy, curly-top gumweed and gayfeather to help refuel for their travels south to Mexico.
“A lot of people don’t know that this tagging project relies on citizen science participants and is available to the public,” said Chelsea Plimpton, lead pollinator biologist, AIM program. “Tagging provides a wonderful opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the monarch butterfly and develop a personal connection with this iconic species.”
Plimpton and her team hosted the 2nd annual public monarch tagging event to give Soldiers and families like U.S. Army Garrison - Fort Hood Command Sgt. Maj. Calvin Hall and seven-year-old Briley Bray an opportunity to experience the science.
The duo trekked through the grasslands with their mesh nets on the lookout for the orange and black butterfly.
“Best part was catching the butterflies and tagging them,” Bray said. “I just listened to the rules and did the catching, but I didn’t go for the monarch in the air because that would give me a not very good chance of catching it.”
Using the up-and-over technique, Hall and Bray quickly captured monarchs and helped biologists to record the tag code, tag date, gender of the butterfly and geographic location, and then placed a tiny sticker on the hind wing before releasing it.
“This is a priceless moment to engage youth and inspire lifelong environmental stewardship,” Hall said. “It’s a meaningful experience knowing that you are doing your part to help with the research and survival of species, while also connecting with military families and the community.”
Each sticker has an alpha-numeric code that is unique to that individual monarch. The AIM team purchases a tagging kit that includes stickers provided by Monarch Watch, a non-profit education, conservation, and research program based at the University of Kansas. The citizen science program enlists the help from a network of volunteers from across North America. At the end of the fall migration, Plimpton will submit the data to Monarch Watch so that the non-profit can reference back to the information if a tagged monarch is found in Mexico.
Since 2017, Fort Hood’s monarch tagging program has helped to collect data on the more than 10,000 monarchs for Monarch Watch, which caught the attention of Jaime Rojo, photographer and National Geographic explorer.
Rojo is working on a comprehensive photo story that will publish in National Geographic in January 2024, with Fort Hood as the only military installation to be featured. There will also be video content to tell different sub-stories and share behind-the-scenes stories.
“You have this amazing group of people that are trained and work very well as a team. All that energy, discipline and training - you funnel that into a conservation effort,” he said. “What I see here at Fort Hood is a great example of a case study that could be replicated in many other places in the U.S. and abroad.”
Over the next year and a half, Rojo plans to document the natural history of the monarchs, threats for conservation and protection efforts along the migratory route, from pollinator gardens in Ontario to the military tagging at Fort Hood and education with local communities in Mexico.
“We are all humans, we all share the same planet, and we all share the same responsibility,” Rojo said. “What I like of this effort is the potential partners between the civilians and military to do something great for the planet and the monarchs.”
Plimpton plans to share lessons learned and successes of Fort Hood’s tagging program with other military installations at the upcoming conference for the National Military Fish and Wildlife Association, and hopes to inspire others to do their part for monarch conservation.
“As for the monarch butterfly, which has experienced dramatic population declines for the last several decades, their success relies on our ability to support our natural environment,” she said. “It is something as easy as ordering a kit from Monarch Watch and having one biologist on the installation doing something. You can start it as this small project, and you can grow it to where it incorporates schools and the military community.”
Plimpton added that involving Soldiers and families in outreach opportunities helps establish or reinforce a stronger connection with nature.
“By taking a moment out of your day to tune in and observe our natural environment, you are supporting your mental, emotional and physical health,” she said. “As you continue to learn about the native habitats around you, you become familiar with those natural spaces, which can lead to a higher level of appreciation and respect.”