The Monarch butterfly, well-known to millions for its beautiful, orange and black wings, may soon be extinct in North America. Who cares, you might say. What’s another insect? But Monarch butterflies contribute to the health of our planet and are part of North America’s ecosystem. They are a horticulturalist’s dream, because while feeding on nectar, they pollinate many types of wildflowers. The flowers they chose are varieties that are brightly colored, grow in clusters, stay open during the day, and have flat surfaces that serve as landing pads for their tiny guests. Monarch butterflies are also an important food source for birds, small animals, and other insects.
The vivid markings of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) serves as a “skull and crossbones” warning, signaling “Poison!” to the butterfly’s predators. Female monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of poisonous milkweed leaves. As the caterpillar hatches, it eats its own egg; then switches to a diet of milkweed leaves. The milkweeds’ toxins remain permanently in the monarch’s system, even after the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. Predators that eat a monarch become very sick and, thereafter, will avoid this distinctively patterned butterfly.
Monarch butterflies live mainly in prairies, meadows, grasslands and along roadsides, across most of North America. The adult butterfly drinks nectar from a variety of flowers, uncoiling and extending its long proboscis to sip food. Most monarchs will live only a few weeks, but the generation that emerges in late summer and early fall is different. These butterflies are born to travel and may live for eight or nine months to accomplish their lengthy migration. Monarchs in Canada and the eastern United States may migrate as far as Mexico, up to 3,000 miles. Scientists think the monarchs use the position of the sun and the changing weather to know when it’s time for their long journey.
Threats to the Monarch’s Survival
Since the 1980’s, this breed of butterfly has faced multiple threats to its survival, including a decline in milkweed plants, loss of winter habitat, and let’s face it, climate change. While monarchs feed on the nectar of many flowers, they lay eggs only on certain types of milkweed plants. Unfortunately, milkweeds are often destroyed as noxious weeds, and their decline has been accelerated by urban sprawl, the proliferation of industrialized, large-scale farms, and multiple years of drought. To make matters worse, deforestation and climate change have caused the area of the Monarchs’ winter habitat in California and Mexico to shrink, placing the species at risk. Finally, climate change has caused an increase in out-of-season storms, severe temperature drops and excessive rain. The combination of both wet and cold is deadly and has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of butterflies.
Warranted But Precluded: Endangered Species Status Denied
According to the Endangered Species Coalition, the Monarch Butterfly population in the Western United States has declined by over 90% since the 1980’s. In the Eastern United States, it has declined by over 80% in the same time period. In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity, an Endangered Species Coalition member group, petitioned to list the monarch under the federal Endangered Species Act. Due to delays on the part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in acting on that petition, a federal court order was required to compel a decision from FWS by December 2020 – six years after the petition was filed, during which time the Monarch population continued to decline. When the decision finally came, it was stunning in its acknowledgment of a threat to the Monarch combined with its deliberate inaction. The wording of the FWS decision was as follows:
“In December 2020, after an extensive status assessment of the monarch butterfly, we determined that listing the monarch under the Endangered Species Act is warranted but precluded at this time by higher priority listing actions. With this finding, the monarch butterfly becomes a candidate for listing; we will review its status each year until we are able to begin developing a proposal to list the monarch.” (emphasis added)
The FWS in its study of the Monarch confirmed that habitat loss and fragmentation are genuine threats to the Monarch’s existence, and that pesticides are a factor in destroying the milkweed that Monarchs need to survive, due to its role in sheltering and feeding Monarch butterfly larvae. Arguably the honey bee, which EJL has written about in the recent past, is one of the higher priorities that should demand immediate action by FWS, if only because humans literally depend on the honey bees to maintain our food supplies. But any creature that is critical to our ecosystem would seem to deserve similar if not identical priority.
For better or for worse, humans are the dominant species on our planet. The environment and the ecosystems within it have been entrusted to our care. Future generations will judge us by how well and how thoughtfully we have protected and preserved that which has been given to us. At the moment, it seems our government, our society, and many of us as individuals could be doing much more.
U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Press Release
What You Can Do
- Write your federal elected officials: Maintain the pressure to defend our ecosystem and continue to hold the Department of Fish and Wildlife accountable, and to establish and protect contiguous habitats that allow for the uninterrupted movement of plants and wildlife, such as north-south riparian corridors critical to species migration.
- Concerned individuals can plant what the Fish and Wildlife Service calls Pollinator Gardens consisting of milkweed and whatever species of wildflowers naturally grow in your area. While this may sound dubious, for reasons unrelated to this article the author planted flowers in his backyard on Labor Day weekend, including sunflowers and gardenias; within days, he spotted the first Monarch butterfly he had seen in years. More information on such gardens can be obtained here: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/PollinatorGarden.html
- Engage your community. Local schools, churches, parks and other public spaces can be urged to plant similar pollinator gardens as part of their natural landscaping to assist in the survival of the Monarch on a community level. Conscious and deliberate planning decisions by a city, by community leaders or both, with a view toward the environmental impacts can make a significant difference over time.
- Call for the federal and state governments to promote changes to tax and land use policies to foster or demand better behavior by private landowners.
National Park Service ~ nps.gov
U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife ~ https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/
U.S. Department of Agriculture ~ https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/nvpmctn12764.pdf