Inmate-raised monarch butterflies fan out in West

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WALLA WALLA — A monarch butterfly breeding program at Washington State Penitentiary celebrated its anniversary Monday another batch of the colorful insects was released by inmates who raised them.

Started in the summer of 2012, the project has been a partnership between Washington State University and prison officials aimed at helping WSU researchers answer the question: where do monarchs in the Pacific Northwest go?

Working under David James, WSU associate professor of entomology, inmates recruited for the program have been breeding, tagging and releasing monarchs to learn more about their migration.

About 40 inmates, known as the “butterfly wranglers” have been in involved with the program so far.

Scientists have known that monarch populations in the eastern half of the U.S. make their way to Mexico for the winter and then return north.

But the number of monarchs found in Mexico earlier this year hit a record low and brought up concerns about decreasing populations.

The monarch population in the western U.S. has historically been much smaller than in the eastern U.S., and before James’ study, there had only been one or two Pacific Northwest monarchs tagged and recaptured.

James believes monarchs may be heading to California for the winter, but also further south to Mexico.

One monarch from last year’s release was spotted in Utah — so, while off course if trying to reach California, James said it was “tantalizing evidence” that it may have been on its way to Mexico.

Another was spotted by a young girl named Rosie, who found a tagged monarch butterfly at her house in Bolinas, Calif.

She sent a message to James, who noted that in six weeks the butterfly had made a 600-mile journey from its release in Washington to the coastal town north of San Francisco.

The monarch was one of 12 recaptures from the first year.

It will take several years to raise and release the thousands of butterflies needed to gather enough data to make any firm conclusions, said James.

But using the butterfly wranglers’ time and skill at the prison has greatly contributed to the amount of research they’ve been able to conduct.

“The inmates get such great benefits from this project,” he said.

“The interest and the motivation from rearing the butterflies gives them helps them become invested in bettering themselves and contributing to scientific research.”

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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