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Butterfly effect: Endangered listing could backfire on monarchs

By   /   March 22, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

A nationwide effort on the part of farmers, conservationists and everyday Americans might be bringing the monarch butterfly back from the brink.

Now, a new federal effort might undo all that.

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MONARCHS IN EXILE: Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico every winter, where declining numbers of butterflies have some environmental groups pressing for the U.S. government to get involved.

The federal government is being petitioned by environmental groups to add the butterfly to the endangered species list. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety filed a joint lawsuit earlier this month calling for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the monarch to the list.

Protecting monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act is essential to their survival,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety.

But adding the butterfly to the list would also mean new regulations for the butterfly’s favorite snack: the milkweed plant.

Milkweed is essential to the survival of monarch butterflies, because the butterfly’s offspring are particularly picky eaters: they will eat only milkweed, and adult butterflies lay all their eggs on the plant. Conservation groups trying to save the monarch have been giving away milkweed seeds for free as the population has dwindled in recent years.

Here’s the problem that some butterfly enthusiasts see: If the federal government adds the monarch to the endangered species list, people might not want to plant milkweed for fear of getting into trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“If milkweed becomes part of critical habitat as defined by the ESA under this petition, that would mean destroying milkweed – or getting caught destroying it – would become a crime punishable by fines or mitigation,” Monika Maeckle, a conservationist and self-described butterfly evangelist, explained on her blog at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.

The fines could be as high as $25,000 per violation and could culminate with a year in prison. No matter how much you like butterflies, that’s risking a lot.

“Many landowners will simply not plant milkweed or will do away with it entirely just to avoid problems,” Maeckle said.

That might cancel out an ongoing federal effort – a butterfly stimulus, if you will – to increase the amount of milkweed by 250,000 acres along the monarch’s migration routes, at a price tag of about $2 million.

Meanwhile, Monarch Watch, a conservation group based at the University of Kansas, hopes to distribute 200,000 to 300,000 milkweed plants this year.

The population of monarch butterflies in the United States has plunged more than 80 percent since 1996, according to a study published this month in Scientific Reports. Environmentalists are pointing to that study as one reason why the federal government has to get involved, before the butterfly vanishes from the U.S.
Graphic via Monarch Watch

DECLINING POPULATION, BUT SIGNS OF HOPE: After years of decline, the number of monarch butterflies that migrated to Mexico nearly tripled over the past year. Conservationists hope the trend is turning around.

But there are some positive signs for the monarch. Mexico reported higher levels of butterflies this winter – monarchs migrate every winter to a small, wooded section of northern Mexico, where they can cover more than 10 acres of forest – and that might be because of private conservation efforts.

By one count, the population increased by as much as 3.5 times this year. It’s still well below record highs, but fears of extinction might have been overblown in recent years.

Angela Logomasini, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and another butterfly enthusiast, says private efforts should be allowed to continue without intrusion from the federal government.

“Let’s hope such private conservation continues and eventually thwarts efforts to list monarch butterflies under the ESA,” Logomasini wrote this week. “Such listing will simply introduce perverse government policies that punish people trying to do something positive.”