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Daily News Blog

27
Jan

Monarch Butterfly Near Extinction—Calls for Urgent Federal Action

(Beyond Pesticides, January 27, 2021) Lowest ever recorded! That’s the result of a yearly winter monarch count along the California coast, overseen each year by the conservation group Xerces Society. In 2020, citizen scientists counted only 2,000 butterflies. The findings indicate that many on the planet today are likely to experience, within their lifetimes, a world where western monarchs are extinct—unless the federal government acts now.

Western monarchs migrate from the Pacific Northwest to overwintering grounds along the California coast, where they remain in relatively stationary clusters that are easy to count.  In the 1980s, roughly 10 million monarchs overwintered along the coast. By the 1990s, that number fell into the low single digits, roughly 1.2 million. Five years ago counts were at roughly 300,000. By 2019, numbers crashed below 30,000.

This year’s count saw no monarchs at iconic overwintering sites like Pacific Grove. Other locations, like Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove and National Bridges State Park saw only a few hundred. “These sites normally host thousands of butterflies, and their absence this year was heartbreaking for volunteers and visitors flocking to these locales hoping to catch a glimpse of the awe-inspiring clusters of monarch butterflies,” said Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerces Society.

The causes of decline are driven by human activity. Climate change, habitat destruction, and the use of toxic pesticides are causing “death by a thousand cuts,” says Xerces Society executive director Scott Black.

A changing climate impacts environmental cues that trigger breeding, migration, and hibernation in monarchs. Climate-induced extreme weather events such as wildfires, severe storms, and droughts can further stress populations. Habitat destruction has occurred through the displacement of natural land with industrial development, and logging and other damage to monarch overwintering sites. The milkweed plants that monarchs require to lay eggs have been found to contain pesticides at levels that can kill butterflies—one study found toxic pesticides in every milkweed plant tested. Pesticides, like glyphosate (Roundup), that are not contaminating milkweed are killing it off, exacerbating concerns about habitat destruction. Each of these stressors are harmful on their own, yet are compounded by all occurring at the same time.

A study published in the journal Biological Conservation in 2017 (while numbers were still ~300,000) determined that western monarchs faced a 72% chance of extinction in 20 years and an 86% chance of extinction within the next 50 years. “This study doesn’t just show that there are fewer monarchs now than 35 years ago,” said study coauthor Cheryl Schultz, PhD, at Washington State University. “It also tells us that, if things stay the same, western monarchs probably won’t be around as we know them in another 35 years.”

Eastern monarchs are not fairing much better. This population migrates from the eastern and midwestern U.S. to overwintering grounds in Mexico each year. A 2018 study published by a research team at University of Florida found that this population has declined by 80% since 2005. Two years after that study was published, the 2019/20 eastern monarch count conducted by citizen scientists found another 53% reduction. Eastern monarchs are counted by the number of acres they occupy. In 2019/20, this number was 7 acres, down from 15 acres the prior year. Scientists have determined that 15 acres is the minimum threshold necessary to prevent total migratory collapse. A report from the World Wildlife Fund estimates that at the current rate of decline, the eastern monarch migration will likely collapse within 20 years.

Wildlife and conservation groups urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list monarchs under the Endangered Species Act. Late last December, the Trump Administration announced it was a candidate for listing, but did not commit to an implementation timetable, delaying any meaninful action. Advocates are urging the Biden administration to follow through with listing and protective actions.

Monarchs may be the first iconic, charismatic pollinator to fall in the age of the insect apocalypse. But unless meaningful policy changes are made, it will not be the last. Recent research published in Biological Conservation show that 41% of insect species are declining and 30% are endangered, with an overall rate of insect decline at 2.5% each year.

Our relationship with the natural world must undergo a systemic transformation if we are to continue to enjoy the beauty and grandeur of monarch migration. We must take both individual and collective action to address this problem. Do what you can on your own property to plant pollinator-friendly habitat, and encourage your friends, family, coworkers, and place of work to do the same. For help, see the BEE Protective Habitat Guide and Do-It-Yourself Biodiversity, Managing Landscapes with Pollinators in Mind and Hedgerows for Biodiversity: Habitat is needed to protect pollinators, other beneficial organisms, and healthy ecosystems.

With a crisis this large, we must also work together. Join with like-minded advocates to urge your state and local officials to pass laws that eliminate the use of toxic pesticides and encourage the planting of pollinator habitat. At the federal level, call for the passage of the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, which would eliminate pesticides toxic to pollinators in favor of alternative products and practices.  

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Associated Press, Xerces Society

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