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Monarchs Population Plummet May Warrant Federal Protection - January 4, 2015

Over the past two decades, Monarch butterfly populations have dwindled by almost 90 percent. That statistic is more than just alarming, it is frightening. This iconic insect, with orange and black colored wings covered with little white dots, has always been a mainstay for schools to use to study migration, life cycles and more, however these amazing insects soon may be something most kids only see or read about in a textbook. This historic population decline has had a huge effect on the Monarch butterfly, and because of the continued decrease in populations, a petition has recently been put forth to put them under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. 

The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 was created to “help protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.” The Endangered species act helped to define two very important terms; “Endangered” is defined as any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range other than a invasive or pest species, while “threatened” is defined as any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Over the years, congress has passed several amendments as research and technology help to improve our understanding of our natural world, and different species move on and off the “endangered” and “threatened” lists. The Endangered Species Act is mostly enforced through two government agencies; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Of the two, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be the key agency to determine whether or not the Monarchs population warrants future protection. 

The Monarch population has declined for numerous reasons according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international non-profit dedicated to protecting invertebrates and the habitat they depend on and one of the biggest advocates for putting the Monarchs under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Xerces Society sites the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. Midwest, a summer breeding hotspot for the Monarch, as one of the biggest contributors to the population decline. Genetically engineered crops, while beneficial in many ways, are also designed to be herbicide resistant. This has led to a dramatic surge in the widespread use of certain herbicides in Midwestern corn and soybean fields, which kills native plants like milkweed and leaves a monoculture of genetically engineered crops. The Monarch butterfly is renowned for only eating milkweed; the poisonous nature of the plant is adopted by the caterpillar as it consumes the milkweed and begins its transformation into its butterfly stage. According to some estimates nearly 165 million acres of Monarch habitat have already been lost in the Midwest alone, nearly a third of the butterflies summer breeding area. 

Another major reason why the Monarch population has been declining, is in part due to logging and development of the Monarchs wintering habitat in Mexico and southern California. The Monarchs can migrate from as far north as Canada and over-winter in just a few acres of trees in the mountains of Mexico or the California Coast, depending on whether they migrated from the east or west of the Rocky Mountains. When the Monarchs do arrive at their over-wintering locations, they cluster together tightly in trees hibernate before mating and traveling back North. If these important winter habitats are lost due to logging or development, then the butterflies can be displaced, creating a snowball effect on the local ecosystem that depends on the migration of these butterflies. 

Climate change is another major problem for these relatively small and light weight insects. Global climate change means more severe weather, like droughts, heat waves, and cold snaps, which put a severe stress on the Monarchs. Climate change could also lead to a change in temperature ranges and other environmental conditions, which would could potentially change the Monarchs winter and summer habitats to unsuitable areas. 

Monarchs rely on a large population to help insure the species continued survival. Nearly half of the over-wintering populations in Mexico and California can be eaten by bird and mammalian predators, and large storm events can wipe out millions of these butterflies at a time. In 2002 a winter storm alone killed nearly 500 million Monarchs, roughly 14 times the size of the current North American population. 

In order for the Monarchs to gain protection under the Endangered Species Act, the next step is for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a “12-month finding”, a year long review, on the Monarch and its current and historical population. Depending on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds, they can either propose protection for the Monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act, reject the petition set forth recently, or add the Monarch to the candidate waiting list for species protection. While the review for protection status may take a year, already the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the petition, filed by the Xerces Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and others, "presents substantial information indicating that listing may be warranted."

 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



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