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Abundant in the 1990s, Monarch Butterflies Now at Risk of Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 28, 2014

Monarch butterfly (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

Monarch butterfly (Photo: Kristofer Rowe)

With Labor Day just ahead, people on both coasts and across the Great Plains should be celebrating the start of one of North America’s great migrations. The spectacle of monarch butterflies working their way back to their overwintering sites, across hundreds or thousands of miles, is the longest known insect migration on Earth.

It’s such a popular event, and the monarchs are so beautiful—their brilliant orange wings bordered with a black-polka-dot hem—that seven states have named monarch butterflies their state insect.

But this year the parade is mostly canceled, and instead environmental groups have petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species.

The monarchs have been decimated—populations are down 90 percent from their 20-year average. That’s “a loss so staggering,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, “that in human-population terms it would be like losing every living person in

the United States except those in Florida and Ohio.”

As it happens, that’s putting it conservatively. From its peak of a billion individuals in the mid-1990s, the monarch butterfly population is down to an estimated 35 million now, a 97 percent decline.

Last winter’s population count at the butterfly’s overwintering site in Mexico was the lowest ever recorded. That’s what pushed the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society, and the renowned butterfly biologist Lincoln Brower to file their joint petition this week, according to Curry. That number—35 million—may sound like plenty of butterflies to opponents of the Endangered Species Act. But the fatal tendency in the past, said Curry, has been to withhold protected status for butterflies until they are on the brink of extinction. When FWS listed the Miami blue butterfly as an endangered species in 2012, for instance, the population was down to fewer than 50 individuals.

Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director at the Xerces Society, noted that this is the 100th anniversary of the death of the passenger pigeon Martha, the last of another species once considered too numerous to become extinct. “History demonstrates that we cannot afford to be complacent about saving the monarch,” she said.

The listing petition blames the decimation of monarch butterflies largely on the practices of a single American corporation, Monsanto, which bills itself “a sustainable agriculture company.” Its introduction of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant soybeans in 1996 and corn in 1998 resulted in a 20-fold increase in use of its Roundup weed killer by American farmers, according to the petition.  As a result, the milkweed on which monarch butterflies depend vanished from a vast area in the Midwest. The weed killer, together with other developments, has since destroyed 167 million acres of monarch butterfly habitat (an area the size of Texas), according to the petition.

For Monsanto, which is accustomed to being called “the most hated company in America,” this may not be quite as bad as being caught dressing up in Wehrmacht uniforms and killing puppies. But its role in the demise of the monarchs could yet become a public relations nightmare. Earlier this year, Monsanto suggested on its blog that the blame lies more with loss of wintering habitat in Mexico. But the company also said it’s “eager to join efforts to help rebuild monarch habitat” and “to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.” So far, according to those close to the issue, that has meant attending meetings but without offering specific action or financial investment.

In an interview, Brower noted that Monsanto can afford to make a difference. (It reported $4.25 billion in third-quarter sales, and surging profits on weed killers.) The quickest way to get results, he suggested, would be to plant milkweed on highway margins and power-line rights of way, and to create no-weed-killer buffer zones on the margins of agricultural fields.

“We don’t see farmers as the problem,” said Tierra Curry. “We see farmers as part of the solution.” The Conservation Reserve Program, under which the government pays farmers to leave some land fallow, could become a means for rebuilding milkweed stands, she said, though Congress has recently been cutting back on the amount of eligible acreage.  She also suggested reducing or eliminating ethanol subsidies, which have vastly increased the amount of land devoted to corn, and instead subsidizing farmers to plant milkweed.

Individuals concerned about the catastrophic decline in monarch butterflies can help by planting milkweed, she said. But it should be a milkweed species suitable to your area. (Here’s a list of suppliers.) It might also help to write a letter to Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant at the company’s headquarters—800 N. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63141—and to sign a public petition asking the FWS to protect monarch butterflies.

That agency has three months to decide if there’s evidence for a reasonable person to believe monarch butterflies are in danger of extinction. If it agrees, it then has a year to research the issue. But the process typically drags on for three years and sometimes more than 10.

By then, at the current rate, there may not be any monarch butterflies left to protect.


6 Responses to “Abundant in the 1990s, Monarch Butterflies Now at Risk of Extinction”

  1. Here’s a link to a scientific paper from this summer pinpointing the cause of the recent decline as loss of milkweed in the U.S.:

    And here’s a graph of the population status:

  2. Are there other species suffering also from loss of native weeds?

  3. Dear Monarch Watchers, Milkweed Growers, Farmers, Conservationists and Friends,

    We are once again at a landmark moment in monarch and milkweed conservation and recovery, so we are seeking your guidance, insights and innovations. The two of us (Gary and Ina) have recently been struck by how different the monarch world looks like than it did last fall:

    1. A listing package for federal U.S. protection of monarchs was submitted to U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service this last Tuesday, capably arguing that monarchs are on an extinction trajectory unless we take extraordinary actions to effectively recover them;

    2. The White House has appointed Fish and Wildlife Director Ashe to head up the “high-level working group” to work with Mexico and Canada on recovery plans, and 14 federal agencies have formed work groups and “communities of practice” to reorient their work plans toward monarch recovery;

    3. Mexican monarch conservationists meet with international organizations in late September to determine whether they should upgrade monarch’s listing to threatened or endangered and establish a corridor of protected areas right up to the Texas border to offer “safe passage” during migration rather than focusing entirely on the overwintering grounds;

    4. We have been co-conveners and facilitators of two national meetings of farm organizations, non-profits, universities, industry (including Bayer CropScience, DuPont/Pioneer and Monsanto) and three federal agencies to scope out whether there is enough common ground to begin effective farm habitat recovery actions, and we are proposing a Keystone Dialogue on monarch and farmland habitats to occur over the next 16 months;

    5. Nurseries and seeds catalogs have never sold more milkweeds, some are out of supply, and the BLM-based Seeds of Success is fast-tracking milkweed seed collection for storage and propagation nationally among its many seed collectors;

    6. Multiple national symposia have occurred or will occur including a November 19th one of university, government, non profit and industry spokespersons at the Entomological Society meetings in Portland;

    7. The media attention has been constant.

    8. We continue to post specific news links to our website at

    So what we would like to hear from you is where you think there are gaps, where we should focus our efforts, who we should reach out to, and what ethical cautions or guidance we should keep in our minds and hearts. We already see that we may have a unique role in helping farmers already engaged in pollinator habitat work to train other farmers. We are also planning cross-border workshops on milkweed seed collection, propagation, out-planting and monitoring from Texas thru Arizona and Tamaulipas through Sonora to be funded by international programs of the U.S. government. But we can bite off too much or be distracted from the real essence of what needs to be done.

    Please help us decide our next steps and note which you could offer time for as a writer, speaker, workshop organizer or go-between. We value your ideas and your ethics. And for those of you so inclined, keep us in your prayers.

    Many thanks and blessings,

  4. […] the monarch butterfly migration faces a worsening risk of extinction, a research team has discovered the basis of that legendary migration in a single gene. Genetic […]

  5. […] the figure of a 97% decline, Richard Coniff in a post on his “Strange Behaviors” blog is pointed in stating that it’s now a question of Monsanto vs. the Monarchs. Since Monsanto […]

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