On July 22, 2022, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the migratory monarch butterfly to its “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered” — two steps from extinction. Known for its spectacular annual journey of up to 3,000 miles across the Americas, the monarchs are threatened by habitat destruction, pesticides and climate change.
What is the IUCN, you ask? IUCN is a membership union of government and civil society organizations. Together, they work to advance sustainable development and create a just world that values and conserves nature. IUCN Members include national and subnational governments and government agencies as well as non-governmental and indigenous peoples’ organizations from over 160 countries. IUCN Commissions are networks of scientists and experts providing IUCN and its Members with technical and policy advice to drive conservation and sustainable development. The U.S. is part of the IUCN’s North America and Caribbean statutory region. Hundreds of IUCN Commission experts are based in the U.S. But the IUCN has no jurisdiction over endangered species protections in the U.S.
Despite the thorough scientific assessment and consensus behind the IUCN’s official designation of the monarch butterfly as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the government agency responsible for the application of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), has failed to offer any protections to the threatened, iconic butterfly. On December 15, 2020, the FWS announced that listing the monarch butterfly under the ESA is warranted but “precluded by higher priority listing actions.” With this finding, the monarch butterfly became a candidate for listing but no further action has been taken to protect the dangerously low population of these beloved butterflies. Instead, the FWS defers to limited financial grants and voluntary actions by energy and transmission companies, and state departments of transportation. The IUCN has sent a clear signal – voluntary actions are not enough.
Logging and deforestation to make space for industrial agriculture and urban development have destroyed substantial areas of the butterflies’ winter shelter in Mexico and California. Milkweed, the sole food of monarch caterpillars, was once abundant, with wild plants growing between crop rows and on roadsides. But the widespread use of pesticides – toxic herbicides and insecticides like neonicotinoids – in industrial agriculture and landscapes across the migration path, kills both the milkweed that caterpillars depend on for survival and the butterflies.
Climate disruptions have also significantly impacted the migratory monarch butterfly and are a fast-growing threat. Drought conditions limit the growth of milkweed. Heat and drought together are a recipe for the more frequent catastrophic wildfires that destroy milkweed and monarch habitat. Extreme temperature swings trigger earlier migrations before milkweed is available. Severe and dangerous weather has killed millions of butterflies.
Not only are the monarchs the most recognizable butterfly in the world, but like wild bees they are essential pollinators. As their migration journey takes them across the continent, humans benefit directly from the pollination services they provide. We thank them not only for the beautiful flowers they pollinate, but also for many foods like blueberries and squash that are staples in our diet.
According to the most recent count released in early 2022, the western monarch population remains more than 95% below its size in the 1980s, when low millions were observed most years. The eastern migratory population has also declined by approximately 70% since monitoring began in the 1990s. And monarchs are a canary in the environmental coal mine. The dramatic decline in the monarch butterfly population parallels other declining animal populations.
“Few species evoke the awe and wonder that the migratory monarch butterfly commands,” said Dr. Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of NatureServe. “While efforts to protect this species are encouraging, much is still needed to ensure its long-term survival.”
Voluntary actions and limited grant money won’t ensure the long-term survival of this beautiful butterfly. It’s time for the FWS to step up and do the right thing. It must be made a priority. FWS must officially list the monarch butterfly as an endangered species and afford the butterflies all the protections mandated by the Endangered Species Act. The Supreme Court found that “the plain intent of Congress in enacting” the ESA “was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”
Tell the FWS to add the monarch butterfly to the list of Endangered Species now, before it’s too late. Send an email to FWS. We’ve made it super-easy. Use the pre-written text or edit it to make it your own. TAKE ACTION HERE.
We also have the power to pitch in and support the endangered monarchs. Here is a list of things we can do:
- Plant native milkweed. Plant your milkweed amidst other plants to give your caterpillars cover from the birds and other predators that eat them. There are many types of milkweed. It’s important to plant only native varieties. Find your native varieties HERE.
- Reduce your lawn size and plant more native blooming plants instead. Include nectar-rich varieties to help feed the butterflies.
- Plant native, nectar-rich flowers to provide food for adult butterflies such as:
- Buddleia (butterfly bush)
- Agastache (Hummingbird mint)
For a list of native plants that host butterflies and moths specific to your zip code, use this Native Plant Finder.
- Don’t use pesticides (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides).
- Become a registered, certified Monarch Waystation. Learn more HERE.
- Speak with your city council and encourage your local government to support monarchs, too.
- Do you have other conservation ideas to help protect the Monarch butterflies? Leave a comment below.