Monarch butterfly conservation efforts are improving. Are they sufficient?

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Monarch butterflies have a moment – in court, on Capitol Hill and across the countryside.

Some migrant populations are up from devastating lows in 2020. Congress is injecting more money. Talks for a legal settlement of the Endangered Species Act are ongoing.

And above all of this loom the long-term consequences if conservation efforts fail and monarch butterflies, after all, end up needing federal protections under ESA.

“Imagine if the monarch is listed,” National Wildlife Federation president and CEO Collin O’Mara told a Senate panel in December. “The impact on farms across the country would be huge. “

An ESA list, however, remains both a separate possibility and, for some environmental groups, a goal.

The population of monarch butterflies in the eastern United States has declined by more than 80 percent over the past 20 years. The population of monarchs in the western United States has declined by 99% since the 1980s.

Still, the news about Western monarchs got a bit brighter last fall.

Emma Pelton, senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, told E&E News that while the final tally is still ongoing and will be released later this month, they number over 200 so far. 000 monarchs.

In 2020, the monarch population was numbered less than 30,000.

On October 16, for example, more than 1,300 monarchs were spotted at the Pacific Grove wintering site on the California coast. This site did not have a single monarch butterfly during the 2020 tally.

“In short, this… is a slight increase in the numbers that is worth celebrating,” Pelton said. “But the population is still well below historical levels.”

Citing the decline, the Center for Biological Diversity last year asked the District of Columbia U.S. District Court to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to grant the species and nine other protections under the ESA. (Green wire, April 2, 2021).

“Languishing in regulatory limbo without a final listing decision may be a death sentence for these endangered and threatened species,” the lawsuit says, adding that “at least 47 species have become extinct pending protection under the law”.

The trial is now on hold as the two sides discuss a possible settlement through mediation, with their next court hearing scheduled for February, according to the latest legal file.

A typical settlement would use the Fish and Wildlife Service to take another look on a certain date. This case may be trickier than others, as it involves multiple species, each with their own scientific and, perhaps, political implications.

Listing the butterfly, for example, would require the FWS to identify critical habitat and potentially force farmers to reduce their application of glyphosate, a herbicide that kills milkweeds. The use of glyphosate has increased significantly since the introduction of genetically modified crops that are resistant to the effects of the weedkiller (Green wire, February 19, 2016).

Each year, monarch butterflies travel over 2,500 miles across Canada to spend the winter in the pine forests of Mexico’s Michoacán region. Deforestation in Mexico and climate change have also reduced the number of monarchs (Green wire, December 23, 2015).

“You can’t keep monarch butterflies just from Iowa, North Dakota, or Minnesota,” former Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe told lawmakers last month. “It requires cooperation with Canada and Mexico, in particular. “

Ashe, now president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, added that “if we don’t protect the wintering grounds and reserves in Mexico, all conservation efforts in the United States become meaningless.”

A provision inserted into the massive infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last year offers help.

It is implementing a five-year program that will provide $ 10 million in subsidies for pollinators on roadsides and highway rights-of-way. Called the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act, the bill was drafted by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) And Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Eligible projects include the planting of native plants, as well as the costs of switching to pollinator-friendly practices, such as reduced mowing, especially during key points of Monarch migration.

Advocates are now pushing for the “Monarch Butterfly Action, Habitat Restoration and Conservation Act”. It would authorize $ 12.5 million per year for the next five years for a Western Monarch Butterfly Rescue Fund and $ 12.5 million per year for the Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan prepared by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“Sadly,” said Panetta last year, “we are now seeing the dramatic decline and potential extinction of this magnificent pollinator across North America.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in 2020 that adding the butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species is “warranted but excluded by work on the highest priority responsibilities” of ESA.

The monarch will now be considered a candidate for registration and its status will be reviewed annually.

The FWS reported that the population of the East increased from around 384 million in 1996 to 14 million in 2013. The population in 2019 was around 60 million. The Western population, based in California, declined from around 1.2 million in 1997 to less than 30,000 in 2019.

The agency cites the conversion of grasslands to agriculture, the widespread use of herbicides, urban development, continued exposure to insecticides and the effects of climate change as the main threats to the monarch’s future.

The availability of milkweed, in particular, is essential for the reproduction and survival of the monarch. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, their only food source.

“The majority of the milkweed loss has occurred in agricultural land, where the intensive use of herbicides for weed control has resulted in widespread eradication of the milkweed,” noted FWS.

Officials unveiled in 2020 an ambitious “candidate conservation” agreement with the University of Illinois at Chicago, which “encourages transportation and energy partners to participate in monarch conservation by providing and maintaining a habitat ”on rights of way and other land, according to FWS (Green wire, April 8, 2020).

The federal agency said “more than 45 energy and transportation companies and countless private land owners will provide habitat for the species.”

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