As monarch butterflies are beginning their epic migration from Canada and the U.S. to Mexico for the winter, concerns about the drastic rate at which they’re disappearing from the landscape have led environmental and health organizations to petition the government for federal protection.
This week, the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Xerces Society and monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking protection for monarchs under the Endangered Species Act.
“Monarchs are in a deadly free fall and the threats they face are now so large in scale that Endangered Species Act protection is needed sooner rather than later, while there is still time to reverse the severe decline in the heart of their range,” Brower, who has been studying the species since 1954, said in a statement.
According to the petitioners, monarchs have declined by a shocking 90 percent in less than 20 years and “may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat ― an area about the size of Texas ― including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds.” Last winter, the numbers of these iconic butterflies reached a record low, raising worries about their future survival.
According to the Xerces Society, in the 1990s, an estimated one billion monarchs made their way from the north to the oyamel fir forests where they spend their winters sheltered by the trees, while another million were believed to spend the winter at sites in California. Now, scientists believe there are only 33 million left.
Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, likened the loss to losing every living person in the United States except those in Florida and Ohio.
For these fragile little insects, surviving a migration that spans thousands of miles is difficult enough with existing threats of predators, parasites and severe weather, but their greatest threats now are a result of human activity.
Scientists believe the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides, illegal logging in Mexico and a loss of milkweed – the only plant that monarchs lay eggs on and the only plant the caterpillars will eat – have all played a role in their severe decline.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Scientists have predicted that the monarch’s entire winter range in Mexico and large parts of its summer range in the states could become unsuitable due to changing temperatures and increased risk of drought, heat waves and severe storms.”
Protection under the ESA would not only make it illegal to kill these beautiful butterflies, but it will also mean no one can modify their habitat without a permit and that they will get designated critical habitat needed for their survival. Next the FWS will issue a “90-day finding” to see if the petition is warranted and if it comes back in their favor, it will do a one-year status review.
While monarchs go about their amazing journey unaware of efforts to protect them, there are a number of things we can do to help them survive. Gardeners and landowners are being encouraged to restore their habitat by planting milkweed plants on their property and allowing space for them to grow. The Xerces Society has a Milkweed Seed Finder guide to help find native seeds for your state.
We can also help by not using pesticides at home and by making sure that plants we’re buying from garden centers haven’t been treated with anything that’s toxic to monarchs or other pollinators.
The Center for Food Safety also recommends choosing foods, especially corn and soy products, that are grown organically because the damage increased herbicide use on these genetically engineered crops is believed to be a leading factor in the decline of monarchs. You can also sign on to the organization’s letter of support for federal protection.
Learn more about monarchs and how to help them:
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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