Conservationists cried foul Tuesday after the Trump administration declared the monarch butterfly a "candidate" for threatened or endangered species status, but declined to go any further to protect the imperiled insect, whose numbers have plummeted by 90% in recent decades.
"[Monarchs] need the comprehensive protection that comes only from the Endangered Species Act, which would save them and so many other beleaguered pollinators that share their habitat."
Center for Biological Diversity
The Associated Press reports Charlie Wooley, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Great Lakes regional office, said the monarch butterfly's protection status would be subject to annual review going forward, but that no further action would be taken for several years due to the number of other creatures awaiting consideration under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
"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," FWS Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a statement. "However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions."
Science indicates the #MonarchButterfly warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act (#ESA). Listing is precluded at this time due to our obligation to address species with the greatest risk of extinction: https://t.co/XZDScnaLi1. Photo by Jessica Bolser/USFWS. pic.twitter.com/un18o09aKP
— USFWS News (@USFWSNews) December 15, 2020
According to FWS, 161 species, or 64% of the animals on the list for review, are considered a higher priority than the monarch.
The iconic orange and black butterfly, renowned for its epic annual migrations from the northern U.S. and southern Canada to Florida, California, and Mexico, has suffered a precipitous plunge in population in North America this century. FWS says the number of eastern monarchs fell from around 384 million in 1996 to 60 million in 2019, and in the West their numbers declined from 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 last year.
According to (pdf) the Center for Food Safety, "the butterfly's decline tracks the virtual eradication of its caterpillar’s chief food source—common milkweed—from Midwestern cropland" due to "intensive spraying of glyphosate herbicide on Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn and soybeans that have been genetically engineered to withstand it."
"We face a historic choice: do we want to protect Monsanto or monarchs?" the group asked.
Other factors in the decline of monarch populations include human-caused global heating and related extreme weather events, as well as predation by invasive species.
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"Climate change has impacted both those populations but especially in Mexico it's been getting warmer and warmer," Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Hill. "So when the butterfly should be... building their fat storage to make the migration north... they're flying around a lot more and burning the reserve they need" for the return journey north.
"We owe them and future generations an all-in commitment to their recovery." — The Center's Tierra Curry on today's baffling decision by @USFWS to put monarch butterflies in bureaucratic limbo instead of protecting them
— Center for Bio Div (@CenterForBioDiv) December 15, 2020
"We are dealing with a climate that's changing very fast," Chip Taylor, founder and director of the conservation group Monarch Watch and a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, told the New York Times. "The immediate answer is two things. One, we restore a lot of habitat. And two, we try to convince our fellow citizens and particularly our politicians that we have to do something about greenhouse gases."
The Trump administration—which has downplayed and even ignored the climate crisis—has been loathe to extend protections under the ESA. It granted protected status for just 25 species, the fewest since the act went into effect in 1973. Former President Barack Obama, in contrast, added 360 species during his eight years in the White House. Conservation advocates told the AP that 47 species have gone extinct while awaiting ESA protection.
"Monarchs are too important for us to just plant flowers on roadsides and hope for the best," Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the AP. "They need the comprehensive protection that comes only from the Endangered Species Act, which would save them and so many other beleaguered pollinators that share their habitat."
Steve Blackledge, conservation director at Environment America, said in a statment on Tuesday that "this trying year has reminded us just how much we need beauty in our world."
"We never want to see the day when the majestic and colorful monarch butterfly no longer floats on the breeze," said Blackledge. "We urge the incoming Biden administration to fix this situation. The monarch needs and deserves the full and immediate protection of the Endangered Species Act, which remains America's best tool to stop extinction."