Interstate 35 through Oklahoma City is considered the monarch migration highway where millions of butterflies make their winter journey to Mexico. However, the monarch population was nearly wiped out just a few years ago. News On 6 went with the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden to the massive butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico on a mission of conservation.
The entire population of monarchs is wintering in an area that takes up less than 15 acres just west of Mexico City, spread out over a dozen protected sanctuaries.
This natural phenomenon has been happening for thousands of years.
The Mecca of the monarch migration is El Rosario Sanctuary. El Rosario is the largest, most visited sanctuary with as many as 1 billion butterflies. The butterflies have traveled as much as 3,000 miles from Canada and all over the U.S., through Oklahoma and down to Mexico to winter for six months of the year.
The Oklahoma City Zoo traveled to central Mexico at a critical time because the monarch population has declined 90% in the last 20 years. The loss of habitats like milkweed in the United States and wintering trees in Mexico, widespread pesticide use, and climate change are to blame.
However, new numbers just released in February actually show the first population increase in 12 years.
Each year, the Oklahoma City Zoo tags 200 butterflies to track their journey to Mexico.
An Oklahoma City butterfly was found in one of the Mexican sanctuaries in 2017.
The monarchs winter at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet. Clusters of what looks like dead leaves are actually thousands of monarch butterflies huddled together to keep warm. Each one weighs one gram, but their collective weight can break the tree limbs. When the temperature rises just enough, they take flight.
Logging in the preserves is now illegal to save the monarch's habitat. A female monarch with her characteristic thick black veins coursing through blaze orange landed on fellow traveler's knee and stayed there for thirty minutes.
The butterflies will soon make the long trip back north. They fly up to 50 miles a day.
The monarchs only live for a few weeks to a few months, reproducing and laying eggs to carry on the cycle of life. The Oklahoma group is taking back a renewed passion to make sure this beautiful creature does not die off.
Snyder said the easiest thing you can do to help is plant flowers and milkweed in your yard, and the butterflies will find it.
Click here for helpful tips from the group "Okies For Monarchs."