Guest Essay by Kip Hansen – 23 July 2022
This is what the Mainstream Media is saying:
National Geographic: Monarch butterflies are now an endangered species
AP News: Beloved monarch butterflies now listed as endangered (as touted in Nature Briefing email).
Despite that (and other similar claims you may have heard or read or seen in the mainstream media, similar to the above) the iconic Monarch Butterfly is not endangered. It is not even Vulnerable, or even Near Threatened. In fact, it’s official designation under the IUCN Red List System is LEAST CONCERN.
The designation of Least Concern was assigned in the most current assessment performed August 2021. The Justification for this classification is given as:
The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is widely recognized for its remarkable long-distance migration. Native to the Americas, from southern Canada to northern South America, breeding populations of this species are now found around the world. These more recently established populations are excluded from the Red List assessment as they are dependant on host plant species which are non-native to these areas (see Geographic Range text).
Only the North American sub-species, D. p. plexippus, is considered migratory and there are two primary migration patterns. East of the Rocky Mountains, over several generations, butterflies migrate back and forth from overwintering sites in the Oyamel Fir forests of Central Mexico to summer breeding areas across the eastern United States and southern Canada. Similarly, in western North America, butterflies migrate from overwintering sites along the Pacific Coast to breeding areas in all U.S. states west of the Rocky Mountains. The sub-species D. p. megalippe, found in the Neotropics from Florida, through southern Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, to northern South America, breeds year-round and does not embark on long distance migrations. As larvae monarch butterflies feed almost exclusively on Milkweed (Asclepias spp.).
Long term population declines, primarily due to habitat loss in overwintering sites and host plant declines in summer breeding areas, have been observed in the migratory sub-species, D. p. plexippus. In the last 10 years, the population size appears to have stabilized, though these subpopulations remain at high risk of quasi-extinction due to stochastic events. However, where this species is non-migratory, the population size and trend are not known with certainty, though the population is thought to be stable. Due to the widespread nature of this species, overall large population size, and declines likely to be less than 30%, the risk of extinction remains low. Therefore, this species is assessed as Least Concern. However, because the migratory phenomenon is certainly at risk, conservation efforts should continue, and additional research on the non-migratory subspecies should be carried out to ensure population stability. “
The press has cooperated with the IUCN and other activists to create the impression that the beloved Monarch Butterfly is in danger of going extinct – which is false.
So, what is all the buzz in the press about? The IUCN has issued a finding that the migratory Monarchs in North America — the two migratory populations of otherwise genetically indistinguishable Monarch Butterflies, which are also genetically indistinguishable from the Monarch Butterflies in North America that do not migrate to Mexico or the California Coast – are endangered. In spite of the fact that there has been no genetic differences found, the portion of the Eastern and Western North American populations of Monarchs which do have migratory patterns and more or less geographically stable over-wintering sites are considered a sub-species by behavior.
The IUCN had previous declared that the magnificent phenomena of the great North American Monarch migrations to be an endangered or threatened biological phenomenon. (and here and here). And despite some good and encouraging news in recent years — here, here and here – the IUCN has taken what appears to be a popular, but activist-motivated, action of declaring the sub-species, D. p. plexippus, to be Endangered — not because the butterflies themselves are endangered but because they may stop migrating — the migrations are in danger of ceasing.
The Encouraging News:
“On May 24, 2022, the World Wildlife Fund-Telmex Telcel Foundation Alliance (WWF) and the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas in Mexico (CONANP), released data from the winter 2021–22 monarch butterfly population counts. Monarchs occupied 2.84 hectares in December 2021, compared to 2.10 hectares at the same time in 2020. This represents a 35% increase.”
[ Note: “Researchers have estimated that there are approximately 21.1 million butterflies per hectare”…2.84 x 21.1 = 58.8 million Eastern Migratory Monarchs. ]
“Monarch butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains overwinter on the central coast of California. The 2022 monarch butterfly news season began with news that the western segment of the monarch population, which migrates along the California coast and numbered about 2,000 butterflies in 2020, jumped to almost 250,000 butterflies in 2021. [ Note: Those numbers are not an error – the population over-wintering was 125 times larger. ] In a post on the Xerces website titled “The Bounciness of Butterflies,” the invertebrate conservation organization based in Portland, Oregon, acknowledged that insect populations are famously volatile, with extreme fluctuations from year to year, depending on conditions.” [ source ]
Various advocacies have been campaigning to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declare Monarch Butterfly as an Endangered species – on a host of grounds – one which is often mentioned is it that such a finding could be used to block the building of The Wall (or require its removal) along the border between Texas and Mexico.
The decision by the IUCN does not affect the official stance of US FWS but will certainly be used as ammunition to continue the push to get the sub-species added to the Endangered Species list so that it falls under all the aspects and protections of the Endangered Species Act, a decision FWS has promised to make in 2024.
The problem with all this is that the Monarch Butterfly is not endangered — there are millions and millions of them, both in the United States and spread quite widely across the world. They are officially, even by the overly cautious IUCN, considered to be of Least Concern of being endangered or going extinct.
However, there is a sub-species-by-behavior, the two separate sub-populations of Migratory Monarchs of North America – Western and Eastern – whose populations have fallen precipitously for reasons suspected but not fully understood. And, yes, it would be a shame to lose such a marvelous and mysterious phenomenon.
This author does not believe that declaring this artificially created sub-species Endangered, a sub-species whose habitat stretches across much of the North American continent, will do anything to help the Monarch Butterfly but will only result in extraordinary federal governmental interference in the affairs of citizens and businesses, especially affecting agricultural practices of our major breadbasket states.
1. The non-governmental organization, the IUCN, has declared the Migratory Monarch Butterfly to be Endangered. This does not mean that the Monarch Butterfly, in all its many forms and glories, is endangered in any way: as a species, they are of Least Concern in regards to extinction.
2. There are many things that can and should be done to help the North American Migratory Monarch recover and all these can and should be done at a State and Local level. These include:
a. Home planting of Native Milkweeds.
b. Community planting of Native Milkweeds in parks and public gardens.
c. Home and community planting of pollinator and nectar flower gardens.
d. Encouraging or passing legislation to prevent Federal, State, and county road crews from mowing down stands of milkweed along America’s highways and public roads.
3. Participate as an individual in butterfly citizen-science conservation projects in your home town.
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Regular readers will know that I write about Monarch Butterflies once or twice a year. Monarch’s are beautiful, plentiful, and full of as-yet-unsolved and still-not-understood mysteries. Follow this link to read my earlier pieces.
The ICUN assessment process is, to put it in technical terms, “loosey-goosey” and often motivated by advocacy. The very idea of species and sub-species is equally “loosey-goosey”. Thus we even have a non-existent mammal, the Red Wolf, listed officially by US FWS as an Endangered Species.
I support in every way local citizen-based projects to help Monarchs and other butterfly species – if interested, do your part.
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