A monarch butterfly perches on a milkweed. File art/The Beacon.

After a years long effort by conservationists for the monarch butterfly to be listed as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined the pollinator is a good candidate, but other species take precedence. 

Citing finite resources, the agency plans to work on higher priority species before evaluating whether monarch butterflies should be listed as endangered or threatened. 

“Forty-seven species have gone extinct waiting for their protection to be finalized,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This decision continues the delay in implementing a national recovery plan which monarchs desperately need.”

The population of monarchs has been declining for the last 20 years because of factors like climate change and insecticides. In Kansas and Missouri, habitat conservation efforts for the monarchs are strong, but alone aren’t enough to preserve the species.

“It is never good news when we find that listing an animal or plant is warranted,” said Charlie Wooley, regional director of the Great Lakes region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which led the review. “It means there are tough challenges ahead.”

In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned by the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations to list the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act, according to Lori Nordstrom, assistant regional director for ecological services at U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The agency started its status assessment of the species in 2016, one that Wooley called one of the most rigorous ever conducted by the agency.

The agency looked at populations of the species worldwide, although populations in North America were the main focus, and compiled and analyzed information about monarchs’ life history, biology, and current and future vulnerabilities, Nordstrom said.

The agency predicted the outcome of the species based on availability of milkweed and nectar sources needed by the butterfly; availability and quality of the wintering habitats for the butterflies; exposure to pesticide; effects of climate change; and conservation efforts to restore habitat. Monarch caterpillars can only feed on milkweed, so the plant is important to their survival.

On Dec. 15, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it found that adding the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened or endangered species was “warranted but precluded,” meaning the agency will review the status each year to see if its listing is still needed. 

If the butterfly’s status is still “warranted” in 2024, the agency will have worked through its list of species with higher priority and then evaluate if the monarch should be listed as threatened or endangered, Nordstrom said. There are currently 161 species in the U.S. with a higher priority than the monarch, Nordstrom said, including the Blanding’s turtle and golden-winged warbler.

Monarchs in the U.S. are made up of an eastern population, which contains 90% of the world’s monarchs and winters in Mexico, and a western population, which winters in California. The eastern population fell from an estimated 384 million monarchs in 1996 to 60 million in 2019. The western population sharply fell from 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 in 2019.

Over the next decade, there is less than a 10% chance the extinction of the eastern population, which includes monarchs found in Kansas and Missouri, is inevitable, Nordstrom said. In contrast, there is up to a 68% chance the western monarch population will become extinct in that time. 

Conservation efforts

Monarchs undertake a journey unlike any other butterfly. 

Each year, they fly up to 3,000 miles south to reach their wintering destination — using environmental clues like the position of the sun — to know when they should start traveling and where to go. They cluster together on trees to stay warm through the winter, and their offspring begin a multigenerational trip back north once spring arrives. 

Orley “Chip” Taylor Jr., director of Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas, has seen the monarchs at their wintering site in Mexico and calls it a spiritual experience.

“You go there and you look at masses of butterflies and realize that these are survivors of incredible journeys,” Taylor said. “You can see the struggle to replicate in this migration, the struggle to survive.”

When he started Monarch Watch’s butterfly tagging program in 1992, Taylor said he was surprised that 500 people responded to his news release asking for volunteers in The Des Moines Register.

In the nearly 30 years since it was founded, the organization has grown its conservation nationwide to nearly 31,000 registered monarch waystations, which are habitats for monarch butterflies created and maintained by the general public.

Monarchs during migration. File art/The Beacon.

Monarch Watch also works with the public through free milkweed programs, distributing more than 1 million milkweeds. It also works with plant nurseries to distribute free milkweed to schools and educational nonprofits or property owners with two or more acres aiming to restore the land’s native habitat.

“I think people want to have a role and feel active and have a positive impact on things,” Taylor said. “Being able to create habitat is a very positive action, and getting rewarded by seeing the butterflies come to the habitat you’ve created is very positive.”

In some of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ efforts, like trying to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, Wooley said there isn’t much role for the public. But helping conserve the monarchs is an action the public can easily help with.

“With monarchs, we are so impressed with the way the American public have raised their hands, gotten engaged, planted milkweed on their public properties and their backyards, developing wildflower gardens that help monarchs and other pollinators, and getting involved in prairie restoration projects,” Wooley said. 

But Taylor with Monarch Watch said the current level of conservation still isn’t enough to deal with the monarch butterfly’s overall loss of habitat.

“We could easily use a couple hundred thousand monarch waystations to have better monarch conservation,” Taylor said. 

While there are many people who want to step up and contribute to monarch conservation, there need to be more programs available that provide an easy way for people to help, he said, and those conservation programs cost money and need to ask for support.

The bottom line? People need to be better stewards of the planet, Taylor said.

“To keep things like monarch butterflies going, we have to deal with climate change. If we ignore it for much longer, we will not have monarch migrations.”

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.