Endangered species defenders have a new reason to celebrate as federal authorities have granted a petition to explore the need for the protection of monarch butterflies, a measure coming none too soon for those concerned about the steep decline in the population in the last two decades. The decline is driven by several factors connected with human activity and scientific advances, in addition to climate issues. Advocates are calling upon the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to enact protective measures to restore monarch butterflies to their historic population size in order to strengthen them against the threats that endanger their survival as a species.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) joined with the Xerces Society, the Center for Food Safety, and Dr. Lincoln Brower, a respected research professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia who specializes in the conservation biology of the monarch butterfly, to request that the USFWS look into possible protection for the endangered species. Their concern comes from the startling drop in the population of monarch butterflies over the last 20 years. According to the CBD, the species has lost 90 percent of its historical strength, dwindling from a high of one billion in the mid-1990s to a low of 35 million at last count. While that number may seem high in spite of the drop, monarch butterflies are vulnerable to many bird and mammal predators as well as winter storms in their yearly migration and can lose half their population in a single season. At current numbers, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for the entire population to be wiped out by a single storm sooner than expected.
In spite of safety claims by supporters of genetically engineered produce, the modern advances in the human food supply are key catalysts in destroying the single food source of the monarch butterfly resulting in the steep population decline. Traditionally, monarchs are born in the Midwest where agriculture reigns as a predominant industry and the genetically engineered crops are purposefully designed to resist the Roundup herbicide, which is an effective means of eliminating the invasive milkweed plants in the fields of soybeans and corn. The problem is the milkweed is the monarch caterpillar’s only source of food so that without it, the caterpillars die and never metamorphose into the distinctive orange and black monarch butterfly, cutting the rate of reproduction dramatically and bringing them to the brink of official recognition as an endangered species. The CBD estimates the butterflies have lost an area approximately the size of Texas from their traditional habitat, including about one-third of their summer breeding grounds as survival depends on the species migrating to where the food sources are plentiful, abandoning the depleted areas.
Monarch butterflies are also very sensitive to weather and climate changes so the droughts and heat waves in the Midwest have wreaked havoc upon the population as well. Additionally, global climate change has been an issue in driving the monarchs toward the endangered species list. Traditionally, they make a colorful display in their yearly migration route ranging from Canada to Mexico with western monarchs mostly heading for coastal trees in California. In addition, the encroaching urban sprawl and logging activities at their wintering grounds in Mexico have negatively affected the survival rate of the species. If, as scientists predict, the majority of their summer and winter ranges become climatically unsuitable, it will put the monarch butterflies in an increasingly precarious situation for survival as a species because of vulnerabilities to storms, heat and drought.
The next step in gaining endangered species protection for monarch butterflies is a one-year study to review the status of the current population and develop recommendations for establishing a plan to move forward with safeguards. The USFWS has 12 months to issue its findings and grant or reject protection or add monarch butterflies to the waiting list. CBD scientist, Tierra Curry is rejoicing at the possibility that the power of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection will come soon for the monarchs who desperately need help in ordered to recover public and private habitats. Senior Attorney of the Center for Food Safety, George Kimbrell and Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society’s endangered species director echo her pleasure in the hope represented by official recognition of the monarch’s dire plight and the willingness to consider future protective measures that ensure the survival of the beautiful creatures.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser
Image courtesy of Suzanne Schroeter – Flickr License