By Mike Lynch
Monarch butterflies deserve protections under the federal Endangered Species Act but must wait behind several other high priority species before being recommended for the list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.
“We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act. However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a prepared statement. “While this work goes on, we are committed to our ongoing efforts with partners to conserve the monarch and its habitat at the local, regional and national levels. Our conservation goal is to improve monarch populations, and we encourage everyone to join the effort.”
Higher priority species include little brown bats, golden-winged warblers and Blanding’s turtle. The Service cited funding as a limiting factor.
The Service said it will be reviewing the monarch’s status annually and expects to list the butterfly by 2024, if it is still warranted. Being listed as threatened or endangered would require the Service to create a national recovery plan for monarchs and make it illegal for the public to harm or kill them.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Xerces Society and the late Lincoln Brower filed the petition in 2014 to have the monarch protected. In December of that year, the federal agency determined it would review the species for listing and later launched a full status review in 2016.
Scientists estimate the monarch population to be about 60 million, down from hundreds of millions in the 1990s, according to the Service. The eastern population of monarchs have declined by 90 percent since that time while the western population has been diminished by 99.5 percent.
The eastern population spends its summer in the Adirondacks and breeds what is known as the “super generation.” This generation flies more than 3,000 miles to Mexico, where it overwinters in the forests. In the spring, the butterflies head north again, breeding along the way. It arrives in the northern reaches of the U.S. after two or three generations.
According to the Service, monarch declines have been caused by a loss of breeding, migratory and overwintering habitat, in addition to exposure to insecticides and herbicides. The effects of climate change and drought was also cited as a factor.
In recent years, many advocates of monarch butterflies have attempted to aid the butterflies by planting milkweed plants. Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed leaves, so the plants are crucial to the survival of the butterfly.
In the Adirondacks, the nonprofit AdkAction has been working with the public to improve pollinator habitat for species such as monarchs by providing native seeds, including milkweed, to the public. They have also partnered with the Wild Center to host presentations by leading monarch advocates. Recently, AdkAction partnered with Saranac Lake Community Solar to plant pollinator habitat at the solar farm.
“While we appreciate that the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that monarchs are threatened with extinction, we are very disappointed that the migratory marvels are not being afforded the resources and protections that would come with being officially listed as an endangered species,” said AdkAction Executive Director Brittany Christenson in an email to the Explorer.
She said monarchs can’t wait much longer for significant projectection.
“We hope that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s official recognition that monarchs are threatened with extinction will open the door for an official listing as an endangered species next year,” she said.