Endangered-species decision expected on beloved butterfly
Trump administration officials are expected to say this week whether the monarch butterfly, a colorful and familiar backyard visitor who is now in a global extinction crisis, should receive the federal designation as an Endangered Species.
The increased use of agricultural herbicides, climate change and the destruction of the milkweed plants they depend on have resulted in a massive decline in the orange-and-black butterflies that have long darted across meadows, gardens and wetlands in the United States.
The levy, which began in the mid-1990s, sparked a conservation campaign involving school children, home and landowners, conservation groups, governments and businesses.
Some claim these efforts are enough to save the monarch without federal regulation. However, environmental groups say protection under the Endangered Species Act is essential - especially for the western population, where last year fewer than 30,000 remained of the million who winted California's coastal groves in the 1980s .
This year's census, though not yet official, is expected to show only about 2,000 there, said Sarina Jepsen, director of the endangered species program at the Xerces Society's conservation group.
"We are possibly witnessing the collapse of the monarchic population in the west," said Jepsen.
Scientists separately estimate the decline in monarchs in the eastern US since the mid-1990s to be up to 80%, although the numbers have shown a recent increase there.
The Trump administration has withdrawn protecting endangered and threatened species in its drive to deregulate, even as the United Nations says 1 million species - one in eight on earth - are threatened with extinction due to climate change, development and other human causes are.
According to a court agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must respond to a 2014 petition from conservation groups on behalf of the monarch by Tuesday.
The agency could propose or refuse to classify the butterfly as threatened, which means it could be critically endangered in all or much of its range in the foreseeable future. Or, such a listing might turn out to be deserved, but other types have a higher priority, which could delay action indefinitely.
A recommendation to mark the butterfly as threatened would be followed by a one year period to provide public comments and make a final decision.
The listing "would guarantee the monarch received a comprehensive restoration plan and ongoing funding," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biodiversity. "The monarch is so threatened that this is the only prudent thing to do."
If status is granted, federal agencies would have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about possible harm to monarchs suggested through state funding or approval measures such as upgrading highways. The service would mandate other measures in a regulation tailored specifically to the butterfly.
Orley "Chip" Taylor, an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas, agreed the butterfly's long-term prognosis is bleak, but said he opposed state listing for the time being because he feared it would lead many rural dwellers to do so To help monarchs.
"There is a palpable fear of regulation," he said, adding that extra time should be given to voluntary action.
Monarchs in southern Canada and the eastern United States move millions of times into the mountainous areas of Mexico every winter, while the areas west of the continent move to the California coast. They gather so close together in forests that scientists can estimate their numbers by aerial inspections of trees with an orange hue.
Worsened droughts reduce the number of those who survive the journey south in winter, Taylor said, while rising temperatures cause butterflies to leave their wintering grounds too early, damaging reproduction. When the forests dry out, the risk of forest fires worsens.
Unless habitat loss and climate change are slowed, "we won't have monarch migration in 30 years," Taylor said.
Environmental groups say 67 million acres of monarch habitat - an area the size of Texas - has been lost to farmland through development or herbicide applications in the past 20 years. They indicate heavy use of Round Up, or especially glyphosate, on farms.
Genetically modified corn and soybeans can withstand the poisons, but they wipe out milkweed that the butterflies lay their eggs on. Caterpillars only feed on milkweed leaves, while adults eat nectar from their flowers and pollinate the plants.
The monarch's federal protection would arouse fierce opposition from the farming groups concerned, as habitat protection regulations could affect farm operations.
Spurge can reduce crop yields and make the livestock that eat it sick. “Farmers have been trying to get rid of it for decades,” said Michigan Farm Bureau's Laura Campbell, who participated in a nationwide monarch restoration program. "It's hard to say," Hey, you need to start planting milkweed again. "
Some farmers and ranchers have planted milkweed in areas reserved for conservation. Numerous organizations and individuals are working to restore the monarchs' habitat, focusing on backyard gardens as well as freeway and utility corridors.
"But there is a lot going on that is taking away habitat at the same time," said Karen Oberhauser, restoration ecologist and director of the arboretum at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "It's like we're running fast but staying in the same place."
25 years ago, the 6-year-old son of a chemist named Jim Edward accidentally caught a monarch tagged by Oberhauser's researchers when the butterfly was migrating in Edward's yard in Minnesota.
Since then, fascinated by the butterfly and its complex migration across generations, Edward has raised monarchs to tell and show hundreds of school groups about the endless migrations.
"Just the exposure of children who are otherwise not necessarily seen," he said. "Your enthusiasm, your joy, your" Oh, Wowness "- to see that."
Some enthusiasts fear they will no longer be able to harvest eggs or raise monarchs if the species receives federal protection. Curry said her group recommended allowing careful, small-scale, non-commercial rearing.
Sheila Naylor, a substitute teacher near Sedalia, MO, says the accidental discovery of a milkweed plant in her garden five years ago inspired the quest to grow the monarch's host in every available inch of yard and roadside.
She attends the Missouri State Fair, schools, and nursing homes, and advocates the preservation of the monarch and other native butterflies.
"I push myself," said Naylor, "because the butterflies keep me going."
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan. Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City.
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