Even though it seems there are plenty of them in the area, we actually know little about the orange and black monarch butterfly in the Pacific Northwest. To find out more, a group of 40 inmates inside the mental health and protective custody units of the prison of Walla Walla Washington assist local scientists in learning more.
Alex Littlebear is an inmate serving a 13-year sentence for helping beat a Seattle homeless man to death in 2004. Littlebear plead guilty to the charges.
Littlebear and about 40 other inmates are assisting scientists at Washington State University to learn more about the flight patterns and instinctual characteristics of the monarch butterfly in the Pacific Northwest. The program gives inmates the chance to rear and release hundreds of the black and orange insects.
When asked about raising and releasing butterflies, Littlebear states:
It’s a stress relief for me. This has got me to appreciate butterflies now that I’ve seen them grow.
Monarchs live between six and 10 months. David James, an associate professor of entomology for WSU states the species are a subtropical butterfly that will visit the Pacific Northwest during warmer weather, but will leave the region as winter turns the environment colder.
Monarchs are one of the few species that will migrate. Scientists would like to track the monarch’s migratory path.
To follow the migration, the butterflies are equipped with a small sticker under the wing. Each sticker displays a serial number and an email address for Professor James. When the butterflies are possibly captured along the way, the person who finds them may contact the university. Two were captured and reported last year. One was found in Utah and the other was reported to be in San Francisco.
As with other creatures from insects to large animals, the population of the monarch butterfly is decreasing in population as the main sources of food are disappearing. Agricultural progress has depleted a good supply of the milkweed plant, the main sustenance for the monarch population.
Tracking the migration of the butterflies gives scientists in the northwest an idea as to where food sources are running short.
Compared to the eastern portion of the U.S., the northwest is seeing less of the monarchs as time goes on. James states the release of about 2,600 monarchs during last year’s release more than doubled the population in the area.
James is hoping the coming years will bring growth in both population and data in the life of the butterflies and in giving inmates the opportunity to help out. Funding is being sought from the National Science Foundation, at least for the duration of the program. He is planning on another five or six years of study.
James captured 10 female monarchs. The females laid eggs on milkweed plants and James states he ended up with about 3,000 eggs on the plants. The plants are then given to the inmates who care for the caterpillars until they transform into butterflies.
Inmates’ duties include cleaning the cages and feeding the caterpillars. Approximately one and one half hours are spent each day caring for the insects.
The correctional mental health counselor, Cathy Bly, believes the program is assisting inmates involved with the program as much as it is helping understand the butterflies migration. The program has been teaching inmates how to work together to accomplish their goal. They tend to open up in counseling after being involved in the program.
It teaches them pro-social behavior. Most of these guys are going to get out. If you just warehouse them in a cell, they won’t learn anything.
A small “community” seems to form for those who are caring for the caterpillars. Bly claims the program has helped inmates with post-traumatic stress and depression.
Joshua Vance has joined the others in caring for the butterflies. Vance suffers from depression and uses the butterflies as an escape from the pain he suffers from. Vance stabbed his father to death in 2012. He is serving a 30-year sentence after pleading guilty to a first degree murder charge.
Vance’s involvement in the program has brought out passion about the butterflies. His eyes show excitement and pride as he speaks of their life cycle.
Vince loves the time he spends with the butterflies. Their beauty of the butterflies stands out to Vance, compared to the dull, dreary atmosphere in the prison.
Knowing that I have so long to do, this makes it easier. It lets me know that there is more to life.