Marching into Monarch Season

Hi! My name is Jordan Castinado, and I’m one of Environment for the Americas’ new monarch research and education field interns for the 2024 internship season. I’m a veteran, a writer, and—as of this spring—now a fledgling conservationist using my intersection of skills and my military background to help the Department of Defense (D0D) in a novel new mission: butterfly conservation.

Working alongside other interns and EFTA staff, I’ll be on the front lines of butterfly conservation by helping to spearhead EFTA’s inaugural partnership with the DoD this year, part of a larger newly formed joint effort between the DoD, the US Forest Service International Programs, and a host of other partners in the monarch conservation space. 

As part of this nationwide campaign to help better understand monarch butterflies’ use of military lands and aid DoD resource managers and other public lands stewards to prepare for the monarch’s potential listing under the Endangered Species Act, but my own day-to-day contribution will often be conducted at the more humble, insect-sized scale of a meter at a time.

down into the Weeds (literally!)

Most of my duties as a field tech intern involve conducting surveys on monarch butterflies and the plants they require for their breeding and nectar resources. Using the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program (IMMP) protocol developed by researchers, conservationists, and other monarch mavens within the Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) network, I’ll be partnering with each base’s natural resources managers and other experts to identify, select, and then survey hundreds of hectares of monarch butterfly habitat on DoD lands over the coming year.  

Celebrating our first milkweed find of the season alongside our Monarch Joint Venture friends while training together at the Bamberger Ranch Preserve on March 7, 2024. Photo: Dejeanne May.

Using the systematic IMMP protocol, I’ll identify and log the species of blooming plants that monarchs and other pollinators use to feed and to support their life cycle, paying particular attention the many species of milkweed in the genus Asclepias which young monarchs require to survive (in part to benefit from otherwise deadly toxins that these plants make!) as caterpillars. To further complete IMMP survey, I’ll also search for signs of monarch eggs, larvae (caterpillars), pupae (the chrysalis stage where they transform into butterflies), and fully-grown adult flyers. 

Eventually I may even be able to rear adults from their larval stages or temporarily capture some of the monarchs—gently!—to help monitor their survival and test the insects for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a widespread and deleterious parasite that is one of the monarch population’s top threats.

From Marines to Monarchs

During an “ambush” by Afghan schoolchildren in a typical scene from my deployments. Author photo.

My own route from trigger-puller to butterfly-chaser —an irony not lost on me or the friends and family who’ve pointed out as much over the past weeks!—is a long, indirect, but perhaps fittingly poetic one. 

At first glance, my path to this role might seem more like that of the proverbial wayward lieutenant or buck private lost on a land-nav course than the comparatively cruise-missile-like accuracy of the monarchs (who, after all, manage to flawlessly fly thousands of miles every year from their breeding grounds across the northern US and Canada to consolidate into an infinitesimally small, curiously specific target of a few hectares’ worth of roosting area in the Oyamel fir groves high in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico in one of the living world’s more undeniably beautiful and puzzlingly specific phenomena). 

For the SparkNotes version, I served as an infantryman in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2009 to 2013, stationed in Camp Lejeune, NC with 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines during the tail-end of Operation Enduring Freedom’s combat operations in Afghanistan. After finishing my enlistment, I enrolled in the outdoor-based liberal arts university Prescott College in the high desert of Arizona, where I took an self-made curriculum pairing arts and literature classes with field-based outdoors coursework to earn my BFA in creative writing. 

In and out of the classroom, I was transformed not only by the splendorous natural environments of the Desert Southwest where I hiked, climbed, rafted, and wrote, but also by the words of the authors, poets, adventurers, environmentalists, conversationists, land advocates, and rabble-rousing desert rats who had also found their homes and muses in the wild lands across the American landscape. 

Backpacking with college friends near the summit of Humphreys Peak in the Coconino National Forest, AZ. Author photo.

 A day job or three later—from stints in political campaign organizing and technology blogging to studio videography and trucking safety law—I devoted myself to my art full-time to earn my master’s in creative writing at Iowa State University, where I graduated in 2023 with an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment

While my writing projects during my time at ISU focused mostly on telling the story of my military enlistment and navigating the path of coming home, I also continued to foster my growing interests in nature and environment by exploring graduate coursework in nature writing, environmental justice, indigenous literature, and other courses that deepened my perspectives on the history and future of life—including our own lives—on this shared planet of ours.

And, so, that just about takes us to fall 2023 when after too many job applications and countless hours on LinkedIn looking for the perfect job, I found a post advertising some of EFTA’s outdoor-based internship placements.

Whew!

And now, here I am, walking through military training areas and target ranges for the first time in more than a decade—albeit on a very different mission. 

Springing into Action 

Since early March I’ve been on the road full-time, spending the past few weeks busily laying out the proverbial red carpet for the monarchs’ springtime arrival in the southern plains by attending field training at Fort Cavazos (née Hood) and Bamberger Ranch in Texas. Now, I’m continuing my own journey north by serving at three bases in Oklahoma where I’ve been assisting the DoD’s environmental professionals by reconning thousands of acres of base lands to select the best sites for our team to start surveying for monarchs soon.

Practicing Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program (IMMP) surveys with a colleague from Monarch Joint Venture while training at Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve near Austin, TX on March 7, 2024. Photo: Mercy Manzanares/MJV.

While I’ve yet to see a monarch butterfly in person this year—though they’re only a matter of weeks if not mere days from arriving in full force at my location if historical trends and citizen scientists’ sightings at journeynorth.org hold true—I’m as eager as ever in spite (or because!) of this fact. 

In fact, I confess that I’m starting to fall for these splendid critters, quickly finding myself in the throes of the same hopeless obsession of so many other amateur lepidopterists who, upon discovering the natural beauty, myriad forms, and rich human stories of butterflies and moths, have developed in an immediate and likely lifelong passion for these singularly fantastical creatures.

A monarch butterfly caterpillar rests on leaf of the Asclepias viridis plant or green antelopehorn milkweed.

A monarch caterpillar on a green antelopehorn milkweed (Asclepius viridis) at Camp Gruber, OK on April 26, 2024. Photo: Jordan Castinado/EFTA

Or, in the other words: I’ve got the bug!

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