Feds to delay seeking legal protection for monarch butterfly

Thursday, December 17, 2020

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Federal officials on Tuesday declared the monarch butterfly “a candidate” for threatened or endangered status, but said no action would be taken for several years because of the many other species awaiting that designation.

Environmentalists said delaying that long could spell disaster for the beloved black-and-orange butterfly, once a common sight in backyard gardens, meadows and other landscapes now seeing its population dwindling.

The monarch’s status will be reviewed annually, said Charlie Wooley, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes regional office. Emergency action could be taken earlier, but plans now call for proposing to list the monarch under the Endangered Species Act in 2024 unless its situation improves enough to make the step unnecessary.

The proposal would be followed by another year for public comment and development of a final rule. Listing would provide a number of legal protections, including a requirement that federal agencies consider effects on the butterfly or its habitat before allowing highway construction and other potentially damaging activities.

Scientists estimate the monarch population in the eastern U.S. has fallen about 80% since the mid-1990s, while the drop-off in the western U.S. has been even steeper.

“We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a statement. “However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our high er-priority listing actions.”

Scientists will continue monitoring the butterfly’s numbers and the effectiveness of what Wooley described as perhaps the most widespread grassroots campaign ever waged to save an imperiled animal.

Since 2014, when environmental groups petitioned to list the monarch, school groups, garden clubs, government agencies and others around the nation have restored about 5.6 million acres (nearly 2.3 million hectares) of milkweed plants on which monarchs depend, Wooley said. They lay eggs on the leaves, which caterpillars eat, while adults gather nectar from the flowers.

The volunteer effort “has been phenomenal to see,” he said. “It has made a difference in the long-term survival of monarchs and helped other pollinators that are potentially in trouble.”

But advocacy groups say it has compensated for only a small fraction of the estimated 165 million acres (67 million hectares) of monarch habitat — an area the size of Texas — lost in the past 20 years to development or herbicide applications in cropland.

“Monarchs are too important for us to just plant flowers on roadsides and hope for the best,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They need the comprehensive protection that comes only from the Endangered Species Act, which would save them and so many other beleaguered pollinators that share their habitat.”

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