The monarch butterfly is facing an uncertain future.
The Xerces Society’s annual winter count of the monarchs recorded fewer than 2,000 butterflies along the California coast, while previous years have tallied tens of thousands. Researchers were stunned by the disappearance of these insects, which have historically covered pines during their migration south from Marin County in Northern California to San Diego.
“These sites normally host thousands of butterflies, and their absence this year was heartbreaking for volunteers and visitors flocking to these locales hoping to catch a glimpse of the awe-inspiring clusters of monarch butterflies,” said Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerces Society.
On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, another group of monarchs takes the eastern route from Canada to Mexico, where they spend the winter. This population, too, has suffered massive losses, NBC News reports. The current North American monarch population is about 80 percent smaller than what it was in the mid-1990s.
One reason for the monarch butterfly’s disappearance, according to Scientific American is the destruction of milkweed habitat along their route across the U.S. Expanding housing developments and the proliferations of pesticides and herbicides coupled with climate change and wildfires have disrupted this 3,000-mile stretch of wildflower-lined butterfly highway.
The Xerces Society and the University of Nevada, Reno collaborated on a study of milkweed plants that found pesticides in conventional and organic farms, wildlife refuges, and urban areas; basically every site they sampled. Further, many of the compounds they isolated were found to be harmful to Monarch larvae.
It’s possible we may not see the monarchs travel this way much longer.
In 2017, Washington State University researchers predicted that the monarch population only had a few years left once its numbers dropped below 30,000.
Making matters worse, a recent court decision upheld that the State of California does not have the legal authority to protect insects under the California Endangered Species Act, while federal protection for monarchs under the Endangered Species Act has been deferred.
Despite meeting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s criteria for an “endangered” species, the federal government decided against listing the monarch butterfly as either threatened or endangered in December 2020.
“We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Aurelia Skipwith, in a statement. “However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions.
“While this work goes on, we are committed to our ongoing efforts with partners to conserve the monarch and its habitat at the local, regional and national levels,” Skipwith said. “Our conservation goal is to improve monarch populations, and we encourage everyone to join the effort.”
As National Geographic reports, the government must develop and fund a comprehensive, nationwide recovery plan for the monarch butterfly before it can be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees that monarchs are threatened with extinction,” said Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerces Society conservation group. “However, this decision does not yet provide the protection that monarchs, and especially the western population, so desperately need to recover.”
Reclassifying the monarch butterfly as an endangered species in the United States will go a long way to saving this species from extinction. Click below and join thousands of others in demanding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stand up for monarch butterflies!
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