Monarch Butterflies Aren't Getting Endangered Species Protection

Their numbers are plummeting, but the government says other species have higher priority.

Monarch Butterfly
The monarch will be reconsidered every year for protection. Nikki O'Keefe Images / Getty Images

Monarch butterflies will not be protected under the Endangered Species Act this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced. Although the agency found that the monarch butterfly qualifies for federal protection under the act, there are 161 other species that are higher priority and in need of the service’s limited funds.

The FWS said the iconic black and orange monarch (Danaus plexippus) is “warranted but precluded.” The monarch will be reconsidered every year to see if the priority changes and will make a decision in 2024 whether to classify the species as threatened or endangered.

“The decision means that listing is warranted by their status, but that it is precluded because of other higher priority species,” conservation biologist and monarch expert Karen Oberhauser tells Treehugger. 

“Other species are higher priority because they are even more at risk than monarchs. In some ways, this reflects the fact that when the law was written, no one anticipated just how many species would be threatened by human actions,” says Oberhauser, who is director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, professor in the department of entomology, and is a founding member of the Monarch Butterfly Fund.

Monarchs have faced serious threats over the past several decades. 

“Monarch populations have declined by more than 70% in the eastern U.S. and by 99.9% in the western U.S.,” Sarina Jepsen, director of Endangered Species and Aquatic Programs at The Xerces Society, tells Treehugger.

Each year since 1997, the Xerces Society has conducted the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, an annual event in which citizen scientists count the monarch butterflies overwintering in California.

The most recent results — collected from mid-November through early December — suggest that the western migratory population may be headed for a record low. Volunteers reported only 1,800 monarchs, with about 95% of the data reported. Researchers expect a final count of fewer than 2,000 monarchs overwintering in California this year.

That’s a drastic drop from the already lower count of the last two years where the numbers were just under 30,000 butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly Threats

Monarch populations have been dwindling due to a variety of troubles.

“They are threatened primarily by loss and degradation of habitat (milkweed, wildflowers, and overwintering forests), pesticides, and climate change,” says Jepsen.

“The factors that are most closely associated with the decline in monarch numbers are habitat loss, especially in the northern breeding grounds, and weather conditions associated with climate change. Hot, dry conditions in the spring and summer are especially bad for them,” adds Oberhauser.

Monarchs aren’t as high of a priority as other species because there are already some conservation programs in place to protect them. Oberhauser points out the existence of citizen science projects including Journey North, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, Project Monarch Health, Butterfly Monitoring Program, and Monarch Watch.

Oberhauser suggests, “Provide as much habitat as possible. Replace lawns at homes, schools, churches, and business places with native plants, including nectar sources and milkweed. Work to increase the value of habitat at nature centers and other protected areas. When possible, replace marginal agricultural land with native habitat. All of these actions will benefit many other species as well.”

Jepsen also suggests people participate in the Xerces Society’s two community science projects in the western U.S.: the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper and the Western Monarch Count.

“While the conservation efforts to date have been incredible, with a broad coalition of people volunteering to plant milkweed and restore habitat, they are unfortunately only a drop in the bucket of what's needed to recover monarch populations,” says Jepsen.

While conservationists are glad that the FWS recognizes that protection for the monarch is warranted, they argue that protection may not be able to wait four more years.

“Unfortunately, the western population of monarchs has plummeted, and may disappear completely before 2024,” says Jepsen.

“We need to do more to protect monarchs. Thousands of people are working to preserve monarch habitat and I firmly believe that without these efforts, monarchs would be much worse off,” Oberhauser says.

“The protection of the Endangered Species Act, in my opinion would have helped us do that. Now, it is up to us to speed up our efforts.”

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