Monarch Butterfly Populations Plummet, Face Extinction: You Can Help

The North American monarch butterfly, whose migration in kaleidoscopes of hundreds of thousands is a spectacle of nature, now endangered.
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Photo©emkaplan/Shutterstock

Showy North American monarch butterflies that flutter above sweet blossoms to drink in nectar and migrate by the hundreds of thousands in a spectacle of nature are endangered, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s foremost scientific authority on the status of species, said Thursday.

Native monarch populations have decreased between 22 percent and 72 percent (depending on location and measurement method), over the last decade due in large part to widespread destruction of milkweed plants they need to survive, the IUCN said in a blog post announcing the species’ addition to the Red List of Threatened Species.

In early fall, kaleidoscopes of up to 500,000 of the butterflies fly up to 2,500 miles from summer breeding grounds throughout the United States and Canada to overwinter in Mexico and California. At times, the air is so thick with butterflies that those along the migratory routes can hear monarchs’ wings beating.

Legal and illegal logging and deforestation to make way for agriculture and urban development in the butterflies’ winter shelter have contributed to the collapse of monarch populations, the IUCN said.

Climate change is a “fast-growing threat,” contributing to droughts that limit the growth of milkweed, increase the frequency of catastrophic wildfires that destroy the plants, temperature extremes that trigger early migrations before the milkweed is ready and severe weather that kills millions on their journey, the IUCN said.

Monarch populations in the western U.S. that have declined 99.9 percent in the past four decades are at the greatest risk of extinction. The IUCN estimated the population in that region of the country at around 1,914 in 2021, compared to as many of 10 million in the 1980s.

The much larger eastern U.S. population fared only slightly better, down 84 percent from 1996 to 2014.

Scientists are concerned there aren’t enough butterflies to maintain the populations, and they could become extinct.

“It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope,” said Anna Walker, an IUCN member and the species survival officer at the New Mexico BioPark Society, who led the monarch butterfly assessment.

Multiple organizations have rallied to save the butterfly. Even backyard gardeners can help by planting native milkweed and reducing pesticide, especially in overwintering areas.

“We all have a role to play in making sure this iconic insect makes a full recovery,” Walker said on the IUCN blog.

“Few species evoke the awe and wonder that the migratory monarch butterfly commands,” Sean T. O’Brien, president and CEO of the biodiversity and conservation organization, NatureServe “While efforts to protect this species are encouraging, much is still needed to ensure its long-term survival.”

That’s where people in neighborhoods across the country come in. Here are five things you can do:

  1. Plant milkweed:There are many milkweed species found in North America. Click here to find out what milkweed specieswill grow in your area. Make sure you plant milkweed that is native to your area, rather than tropical milkweed.
  2. Plant a butterfly garden:The National Wildlife Federation has a program that can teach people to turn any outside space into a complete habitat for monarch butterflies — whether in their own yards, at schools or churches or business courtyards. Entire communities are launching efforts to create monarch habitat, NWF said. Click here to learn how to create a wildlife-friendly garden.
  3. Don’t use pesticides:It’s easy to avoid using pesticides, many of which contain glyphosate. Click here to learn how to garden organically.
  4. Create a monarch way-station: monarch butterfly waystationis a great option for city-dwellers who don’t have big back yards. Container gardens on balconies, rooftops and stoops will lure monarchs.
  5. Be a smart consumer:Buying organic produce and avoiding genetically engineered foods can indirectly boost monarch populations.

“We’re holding our own at a number that’s not quite sustainable,” University of Wisconsin conservation biologist Karen Oberhauser, who contributed to the assessment, told The New York Times. “But if we didn’t have all of these efforts on the part of a lot of different organizations and individuals, I think the numbers would be even lower.”

Beth Dalbey is a national editor for Patch.

Printed courtesy of Patch.

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