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Patrick McCarthy headshot

What Will It Take to Save the Monarch Butterfly?

Monarch Butterfly

“America’s insect” is on the verge of extinction. The migratory monarch butterfly is dying, and the decline of the beloved bugs threatens a “butterfly effect” on entire ecosystems. After the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) classified monarchs as ‘endangered’ in late July, conservationists are rallying to stop the risk of extinction. 

The IUCN’s decision comes after years of requests from conservation groups to classify the insects as endangered. Only the migratory monarch was classified as endangered, but many scientific groups think the nonmigratory monarch should be added as well.

Jeanne Dodds, the creative engagement director for the Endangered Species Coalition, said that this recent classification may not carry the necessary legislative influence to affect policy outcomes in the U.S.

“It is important to note that the recent ‘Endangered’ listing of monarchs by the IUCN, which is an international body making important recommendations to influence policy, is not the same as a U.S. Endangered Species Act designation as ‘Endangered,’” Dodds said. “An ESA listing would allow for national legal, regulatory actions to be taken for protection of the species.”

The monarch butterfly is in decline: How we got here

Across species, loss of habitat is the leading cause of decline. “For monarchs, this includes the loss of habitat including native milkweed (the obligate host plant for the monarch breeding cycle) and logging and deforestation of overwintering sites in California and Mexico,” Dodds said, citing climate change and the use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides as additional factors in the decline of pollinator populations.

In 2014, a broad coalition of businesses, scientists and organizations petitioned the federal government to protect monarchs as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Then in 2015, the U.S. government pledged $3.2 trillion to save the monarchs, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delayed its decision on the monarch’s status for six years, finally announcing in December 2020 that it would not classify the butterflies as endangered. At the time, the FWS said it worried that classifying the monarch butterfly as endangered could take attention and resources away from other endangered species. 

Still, Dodds said the regulation of the chemicals used in pesticides could be the most effective legal action to take to protect the monarch butterfly. “Endangered Species Coalition is concerned with and working to advocate for EPA consulting with FWS to review chemicals before they are approved for impacts to Threatened and Endangered species,” she said.

A butterfly effect

The extinction of the migratory monarch butterflies would trigger a calamitous chain reaction

The result would be very real “butterfly effect” — imagine what the sudden lack of tens of thousands of beating butterfly wings will do to the fragile equilibrium of our natural order.

Insects, birds like the black-backed oriole, and other predators would lose a crucial food source. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Without the monarch butterfly serving its vital purpose as a pollinator of vegetables and herbs, staple crops of the human diet could be decimated.

“Without appropriate habitat, we will continue to diminish critically important pollinating species like monarchs,” Dodds said. “In turn, monarchs are an important food source for predators, including other insects and bird species, so the decline of monarch butterflies impacts other wildlife reliant on their presence.”

Conversely, monarch population growth would be a boon for humans and other species. “Habitat loss is the main driver of species endangerment and extinction, so when we conserve or restore pollinator habitat with a diversity of native pollinator plants, all species — including humans — benefit,” Dodds explained. “In particular, agricultural lands benefit from native pollinator plants and the increased presence of all kinds of pollinators, including monarchs.”

Image credit: Derek Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons

Patrick McCarthy headshot

Patrick is a freelance journalist who writes what the robots can't. Based in Syracuse, New York, Patrick seeks to uplift, inform, and inspire readers with stories centered on environmental activism, social justice, and arts and music. He enjoys collecting books and records, writing prose and poetry, and playing guitar.

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