(Beyond Pesticides, December 11, 2017)
Tell the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to substantially increase the amount of funding spent on the conservation of monarch butterflies and the restoration of their habitat, and to ensure that restored habitat is not poisoned with hazardous pesticides.
Although the agency has taken some steps to protect monarchs –including the implementation of the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project and support for the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund— last year’s NRCS expenditure of $4 million was insufficient to prevent the monarchs’ decline, and could not even begin stemming the loss of milkweed habitat. Restoring the monarch butterfly and its habitat will require a substantial contribution from the agricultural sector and strong leadership from the NRCS. Agricultural lands encompass 77% of all prospective monarch habitat, and thus are indispensable to reaching these goals.
Monarch populations have fallen more than 80 percent over the last 20 years, and it is estimated that there is a 60 percent chance the multigenerational migration of these butterflies would completely collapse in the next 20 years. Milkweed, the only forage for monarch caterpillars, has decreased by 21 percent, especially in the Midwest, where agricultural fields and pesticide use have expanded.
Scientists estimate that to meet the monarch protection goal in the 2015 National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, the U.S. needs to plant approximately 1.6 billion more milkweed stems to support a population of 225 million butterflies and the goal of six hectares of overwintering monarchs –a population goal that is still substantially lower than the monarch butterfly population in the early 1990s, but one that would drastically reduce the likelihood of monarch extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is set to determine whether to protect monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act. An agreement with Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity in July 2016 requires the agency to decide by June 2019 whether the butterflies will receive federal protection. This agreement came in response to a lawsuit earlier that year to force the agency to set a legally binding deadline for a decision on a 2014 petition calling for protection of the species. FWS’s consideration of federal protection for monarchs is a positive step toward improving habitat and raising awareness about the decline of the butterfly, as well as the plight of other pollinator populations. Restoration of safe monarch habitat is essential to building populations, allowing the monarch to be delisted in the near future. Ensuring that this habitat is safe for monarchs by requiring that no pesticides are used would have benefits in building soil biology and protecting other pollinators.
The Monarch butterfly is one of many important pollinator species that have experienced drastic declines in recent years. Along with threats from glyphosate use and habitat loss, the use of insecticides, like neonicotinoids, has also been linked to monarch declines. The use of genetically engineered (GE) crops (Roundup-ready crops) allows the use of Monsanto’s glyphosate in cropland, an important factor in the decline of the monarch. Glyphosate eradicates milkweed, and the dramatic surge in Roundup use and “Roundup Ready” crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in Midwestern corn and soybean fields. It is estimated these butterflies have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat. A 2016 study found that the increasing use of neonicotinoid insecticides is correlated with a steep decline in butterfly health and reproductive success.