Monarch butterfly population moves closer to extinction
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The number of Western monarchs' butterflies hibernating on the California coast has plummeted to a record low, bringing the orange-and-black insects closer to extinction, researchers said Tuesday.
An annual winter census by the Xerces Society recorded fewer than 2,000 butterflies, a massive decrease from the tens of thousands in recent years and the millions that accumulated in trees from Marin County in northern California to San Diego County in the south in the 1980s.
Western monarch butterflies migrate from the Pacific Northwest to California every winter, returning to the same places and even the same trees, where they gather to keep warm. The monarchs typically arrive in California in early November and spread across the country as soon as warmer weather arrives in March.
On the east side of the Rocky Mountains, another population of monarchs from southern Canada and the northeastern United States travel thousands of kilometers to spend the winter in central Mexico. Scientists estimate that the monarch population in the eastern US has declined by about 80% since the mid-1990s, while the decline was even steeper in the western US.
The Xerces Society, a non-profit environmental organization focused on invertebrate conservation, recorded approximately 29,000 butterflies in their annual survey last winter. That was not much different than the winter before, when an all-time low of 27,000 monarchs was recorded.
But the count this year is grim. At the monarch's legendary wintering spots in the town of Pacific Grove, volunteers did not see a single butterfly this winter. Other well-known locations, such as Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove and Natural Bridges State Park, were only home to a few hundred butterflies, according to researchers.
"These sites are typically home to thousands of butterflies, and their absence this year has been heartbreaking for volunteers and visitors who flocked to these areas in hopes of glimpsing the formidable populations of monarch butterflies," said Sarina Jepsen, director for endangered species in the Xerces Society.
Scientists say butterflies in western states are at critically low levels due to the destruction of their habitat for milkweed along their migration route, as housing expands on their territory and the use of pesticides and herbicides increases.
Researchers have also identified the effects of climate change. Along with agriculture, climate change is one of the main reasons for the monarch's critically endangered extinction. It disrupts an annual migration of 4,828 kilometers, which is synchronized with spring, and the blooming of wildflowers. Massive forest fires across the western United States last year could have affected their breeding and migration, researchers said.
A 2017 study by Washington State University researchers predicted the species would likely become extinct in the next few decades if the monarch population fell below 30,000 if nothing was done to save it.
Monarch butterflies have no state and federal legal protection to prevent their habitat from being destroyed or degraded. In December, federal officials declared the monarch butterfly a "candidate" for threatened or endangered status, but said no action would be taken for several years due to the many other species awaiting expulsion.
The Xerces Society said it will continue to seek protection of the monarch and work with a variety of partners "to implement science-based protection measures that are badly needed to aid the iconic and beloved migration of butterflies of the western monarch."
People can help the colorful insects by planting early blooming flowers and milkweed to fuel wandering monarchs on their way to other states, the Xerces Society said.
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