Monarchs Denied Endangered Status: We're Relieved
This week the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decided that listing Monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act is "warranted but precluded." This post aims to clarify some of what this does and doesn't mean along with why many Monarch Enthusiasts, including myself, are satisfied with their conclusion.
You may have heard the buzz about Monarch species declining in the US. It is a complicated situation and there are many factors involved. The biggest threat to them is changes or loss of the habitats where they breed, overwinter and migrate. This involves urban development, logging, agricultural practices, drought, herbicides, and mismanagement of over-wintering sites, among other things. Climate change, insecticides, and habitat loss are menacing and complex issues.
Is the insect about to disappear from the planet? Not necessarily. Lets clarify a few things. Monarch butterflies live on several continents. They are originally native to Mexico. Therefore, their hometowns are in North and Central America, though they have also colonized places in South America, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and Europe.
Most of the news we get is regarding the monarch populations that migrate across Canada, the US and Mexico. There are two populations in the US, known as the western and the eastern.
Monarchs west of the continental divide tend to spend winters in coastal California. This is the western population. These are the ones that are disappearing most rapidly. I visited one of their overwintering sites in Monterey a few years ago and there was almost nothing to see because there were so few of them. It was disappointing.
The much larger eastern population migrates from parts of Canada and the US all the way to Mexico where they overwinter. Their numbers are also dropping but not as drastically.
Additionally, there are smaller populations in places like south Florida, that spend winters in Florida. They are present year round and don't migrate. Not much research has been done on these.
FWS data indicates that listing monarchs under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) is "warranted but procluded." This means they recognize that monarchs are in need of attention. Due to higher prioritized species in front of the line that also need to be protected and a general lack of funding to do everything all at once, they are still working to protect monarchs even without officially listing them. What the FWS did do is list monarchs as a candidate species.
Cooperative conservation efforts can help improve their status. You and I can work together with others to help solve the monarch dilemma.
The Federal Wildlife Service will continue to monitor the data each year and seek out new information. If things look more perilous, they can reevaluate the monarch's spot in line for further protections. If the numbers improve monarchs can be removed from the line entirely.
This is where folks like you and I can come in. Anyone who is a landowner can help by implementing best practices and reducing pesticides. They can participate in conservation agreements and plant pollinator habitats. It is especially helpful when midwestern farmers join the efforts because these lands are critical for monarchs.
We can cultivate butterfly gardens, participate in citizen science, spread the word about butterflies and support groups that are doing the same.
Whether or not they are officially on the list, we can be mindful of what threatens them and be a force for positive change.
So, why are some of us uneasy about listing monarchs as threatened or endangered?
The only way to be allowed to interact with a species classified as endangered is by obtaining a license or permit issued by a Federal agency. That permit can be nullified or modified at any time. It would not likely be issued to Betty the gardener or Mrs. Jones' kindergarten class.
In other words, it would be illegal for those of us who enthusiastically raise or tag monarchs to carry on. No more caterpillars in cages, no more gifting pupae, no more children releasing butterflies. No more hands-on monarch fun.
The penalties are severe and can involve large fees and prison time. With other endangered animals these provisions make sense. With monarchs it is questionable. But the ESA is written and for now these are the stipulations of it.
For many of us, it was the tangible experiences we have had with raising monarchs that sparked our love for them, other butterflies, and ecology in general. What if future generations are banned from that?
The legalities get complicated. Sometimes other similar species can also be off-limits to raise if there is a chance that the public may confuse the two. For example, in Florida, a tiny butterfly called the Miami blue is listed as endangered. Three lookalikes, the ceraunus blue, cassius blue, and nickerbean blue are illegal to tamper with because uninformed gardeners could be mistakenly handling an endangered Miami blue while thinking they are interacting with one of the other three.
What are the implications regarding monarchs? If they are endangered it may also follow that similar butterflies, perhaps queens, viceroys or soldiers could also be illegal to handle or raise.
We all love monarchs and want to conserve them.
We can avoid unnecessary pesticides, plant milkweed, join conservation efforts, and do our part to live gently on the planet whether or not they are officially on the list.
Have a Fluttery Day,