Groups say monarchs threatened with extinction

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have until late November to respond to petition

file photo
Monarch butterfly numbers have declined significantly and have now been proposed for federal protection
Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL— One of the iconic symbols of summer in North America is rapidly disappearing and faces possible extinction, according to a coalition of conservation and food safety groups. The groups, which include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Xerxes Society, and the Center for Food Safety, as well as prominent butterfly researcher Dr. Lincoln Brower, have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the monarch as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The petition was filed with the USFWS on Aug. 26 and the agency has 90 days from that date to indicate whether a review of the petition is warranted.

The monarch butterfly, with its large size, striking black and orange markings, and migratory habit, is the best known and among the most widely distributed butterflies on the continent. But the monarch population is in drastic decline throughout the eastern two-thirds of the country and is threatened with possible extinction, according to the petitioners. They say the monarch population east of the Rockies has fallen by an astonishing 90 percent over the past two decades.

The petitioners contend that several factors are contributing to the butterfly’s demise, including the drastic loss of habitat in recent years. “In the Midwest, nearly ubiquitous adoption of, glyphosate-resistant “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans has caused a precipitous decline of common milkweed, and thus of monarchs, which lay their eggs only on milkweeds,” state the petitioners in their filing with the USFWS. “The majority of the world’s monarchs originate in the Corn Belt region of the United States where milkweed loss has been severe, and the threat that this habitat loss poses to the resiliency, redundancy, and representation of the monarch cannot be overstated.”

The high price of corn and other grain crops has also sparked a rapid conversion of grasslands and other milkweed-containing lands, that had previously been enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, to corn and soybeans. Nationally, CRP acreage has fallen by 30 percent since 2007, converting 11 million acres of once monarch-friendly landscape to intensive agricultural lands largely devoid of milkweed.

Finally, residential and commercial development of open spaces, combined with the loss of wintering habitat in the mountains of central Mexico, has further exacerbated the decline.

The petitioners note the dramatic and rapid nature of the monarch’s decline. As recently as the winter of 1996-97, the monarch population east of the Rockies was estimated at one billion. “In the course of less than 20 years that number has fallen to fewer than 35 million, representing a decline of 97 percent from the 1996-97 high,” note the petitioners. “The number of monarchs that overwinter west of the Rockies has also undergone a dramatic recent decline of 90 percent from the 1997 high (when monitoring began) and a 51-percent decline from the 17-year average.”

Petitioners argue that the rapid nature of the collapse indicates environmental change on a large and rapid scale, and they note that monarchs are just one of many insect species, including honeybees, to have experienced rapid die-offs in recent years. They argue that the loss of insects, particularly pollinators, “threatens the wellbeing of people because the food security of humans is dependent on their ecological services.”


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