The monarch butterfly presents a continent-wide icon of the butterfly genera. Its red-orange wings with defining black outlines and white freckles once danced over pastures, thistle and milkweed across their North American range, but land use changes since the 1980s have dramatically affected monarch populations.
Monarchs make a marvelous migration to winter “hivers” based on their summer breeding range in the U.S. and southern Canada. The Rocky Mountains, of course, divide the major migration routes. Eastern monarchs overwinter in southern Florida and Mexico, while western monarchs overwinter on the southern California coast.
Their reliance on milkweed makes for an easy classroom experiment, collecting the vibrant, yellow, black and white-striped caterpillar with a few leaves and watching it turn into a chrysalis, then mature and hatch into the adult butterfly. But, at present, the monarch population has declined more than 80 percent in the past 30 years; the western population facing extinction.
In 1997, the Xerces Society established the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, similar to the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, where “citizen scientists” document monarchs on their western winter hiver. According to Washington State University, the 10 million monarchs documented in the 1980s declined to 30,000 in 2018, and fell below 2,000 this past winter.
Dramatic loss of the western monarch population led to special interest groups petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect the butterfly and their habitat with a listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A FWS status review determined that “…listing the monarch butterfly as endangered under the ESA is warranted but precluded by higher priority actions.” In other words, there are more than 100 species ahead of the monarch in need of FWS resources and protection.
Additionally, under the ESA, an insect species cannot be segregated into subpopulations such as birds, mammals and fishes. Therefore, the FWS must consider the status of the monarch butterfly as one population across its North American range. If the western monarch were to be carved off as its own “distinct population segment”, it’s ESA listing priority would likely be much higher.
While the western monarch faces a dire future, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and the Xerces Society promote pollinator initiatives that benefit monarchs among other pollinator species. Many Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever chapters are willing to cost-share on pollinator enhancement projects.
Additionally, two congressional bi-partisan bills, the Monarch Action, Recovery, and Conservation of Habitat (MONARCH) Act, as well as the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act, were recently introduced to avoid the extinction of the western monarch.
The MONARCH Act would authorize $62.5 million for western monarch conservation projects, and another $62.5 million to implement the Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan, paid out over the next five years. The Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act would establish a federal grant program available to state departments of transportation and Native American tribes to carry out pollinator-friendly practices on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.
At the local level, milkweed promotion could have a positive influence for the western monarch. Various studies suggest small patches of milkweed, as small as two- to five-square-yards in area, could be affective for increasing reproduction. Patches that small area easily managed in a backyard flowerbed or garden, and the western native “showy milkweed” boasts a beautiful spiked ball of pink bloom, worthy of being added to any pollinator seed mix.
Recent conservation initiatives are late to the table for the western monarch, and the upcoming reproduction season is critical to their long-term survival. Will this iconic pollinator population boast a success story similar to species like the greater sage grouse or bald eagle? Time and a few congressional votes will tell.