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Hope for monarchs

Local monarch advocates say the decision to list monarch butterflies as endangered was correct, yet they see reasons for optimism
Robert Coffan holds a male monarch butterfly that is ready to fly. [Courtesy photo]
Robert Coffan holds a male monarch butterfly that is ready to fly. [Courtesy photo]

Local advocates for monarch butterflies and other pollinators applauded the announcement Thursday by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to place migratory monarch butterflies on their “red list,” deeming them endangered.

While the distinction carries different meaning than being listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which could come next, locals hope the international distinction will help to underscore the need for increased preservation efforts to protect and expand habitat and reduce use of pesticides.

A subspecies of the monarch butterfly, the migratory monarch is known for its migrations from Mexico and California in the winter to summer breeding grounds throughout the United States and Canada. Populations have shrunk over the past decade by an overwhelming 22% to 72%.

According to the IUCN, legal and illegal logging and deforestation has destroyed critical winter shelter in Mexico and California, while pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture across the range kill butterflies and milkweed, the host plant that the larvae of the monarch butterfly feed on.

At the greatest risk of extinction, the western population of migratory monarchs have declined by an estimated 99.9%, from as many as 10 million to 1,914 butterflies, between the 1980s and 2021, according to IUCN statistics.

The larger eastern population also shrank by 84%, from 1996 to 2014.

Robert Coffan, a Medford resident and chair of the Western Monarch Advocates, said any protection for the migrating monarchs is helpful. The colorful insects were considered for ESA listing two years ago but have not yet been placed on the list for a handful of reasons, Coffan explained.

“Back in December 2020, Fish and Wildlife said that we should add the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species,” he said.

“So, yes, it’s warranted, and it should be on the list, but, for now, it’s precluded because of work being done on some higher priority listings.”

Stacy Carlson, communications coordinator for the Monarch Joint Venture, said the IUCN listing could help further the case for listing in the U.S.

“We’re hopeful that the next time Fish and Wildlife reviews the status of monarchs in 2024, that they will list it under the Endangered Species Act,” she said.

“The IUCN is not related to the Endangered Species Act; however, it’s a very well respected global network of scientists and conservationists, and their assessment do nothing but help the conservation effort in terms of momentum.”

Sharon Schmidt, president of the Phoenix chapter for Bee City USA, said she hoped the increased awareness of the status of migrating butterflies would encourage change, large and small.

“I think it’s a really important thing for it to be declared endangered. We need monarchs. If you follow the food chain, they’re a really important source of pollination and a really important dietary source for birds,” Schmidt said.

“It’s really scary to think that the entire population has been substantially decimated.”

Schmidt encouraged planting of pollinator gardens — milkweed to feed caterpillars and specific nectar plants to feed butterflies and other pollinators.

“The monarch butterfly, in a way, is like the poster child of survival for all of us — animals and people. If they’re in trouble, we’re all in trouble,” she said.

A glimmer of hope, Coffan said, is that researchers had noted a recent, small rebounding of migratory monarchs in the western U.S.

“The good news is that we’ve been seeing a small rebound in our western population of monarchs. It’s actually kind of amazing because the numbers had dwindled down to a population of 2,000. It had dropped from 20,000 to 2,000, two winters ago. The overwinter count was so low, it was extremely alarming,” he said.

“But then something really amazing happened. They saw the count had jumped up to 240,000.”

“Biologically, people are like, that’s not really possibly — the math doesn’t pencil out,” Coffan added. “How did this happen? The scientific community is all over the place on what’s going on, but obviously everyone is really happy there seems to be a rebound of some sort.”

Coffan said western monarchs were now showing up all along the West Coast, a hopeful sign for survival.

“We’re seeing that, right now, in midsummer, those monarchs and their kids, somehow, managed to recover in every single western state, with two found in British Columbia,” Coffan said.

“Not only did they fly, they found one another, mated, laid eggs, had another generation and continued migration. We’re far from out of the woods, but I’d say it’s definitely a real sign of hope.”

To learn more, see westernmonarchadvocates.com/ and facebook.com/groups/2040486716061532/

Reach reporter Buffy Pollock at 541-776-8784 or bpollock@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal.