Monarch butterflies resting during migration. Photo by Gene Neiminen/USFWS.
A billion monarch butterflies once fluttered across the North American landscape, representing one of the greatest migration phenomena in all of nature. Over the last 20 years, their numbers declined precipitously, with the eastern population falling to a mere 33 million in 2014.
In 2015, that number grew to approximately 56.5 million butterflies that concentrated on less than three acres at overwintering sites in Mexico — hardly enough to assure the monarch’s migration for generations to come. The vast continental range of the monarch butterfly presents a complex host of challenges to saving this charismatic insect.
But we have done this before.
The population of bald eagles — America’s national bird — hit rock bottom in 1963 with just 417 nesting pairs in the contiguous United States. You probably know the story: DDT, a widely used insecticide, built up in adult eagles and thinned the shells of their eggs that would crack while being incubated by the parents. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, we took a host of conservation actions, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring set off a firestorm that changed the country’s view of the natural and ended the indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT. Today, more than 10,000 pairs of bald eagles roam the country from coast to coast.
For the monarch butterfly, arguably the continent’s most beloved butterfly, many threats loom, especially the loss of native milkweed it needs to lay its eggs and its caterpillars need to eat. Nectar plants are also critical to feed the adult butterflies in spring, summer and fall as they migrate more than 3,000 miles between their winter sanctuary in Mexico and breeding habitats across the United States and up into Canada. The wide-scale adoption of herbicide-resistant corn and soy crops, has drastically changed the agricultural landscape, once a vibrant source of breeding and migrating habitat for monarchs. This resistance enables broad and non-targeted application of herbicides that indiscriminately kills vegetation growing around farm fields and in nearby habitat, including milkweed.
“We need to create alternate habitat for the monarch butterfly,” Service Director Dan Ashe shared with reporters at the National Press Club before Valentine’s Day when he announced an ambitious campaign, working with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (which received $1.2 million from the Service to create a Monarch Conservation Fund) to save the monarch butterfly.
In the words of Colin O’Mara, the National Wildlife Federation’s CEO, “This is a problem we can fix.” Again, we have done it before.
Beyond their beauty and now well-known status, monarchs are excellent indicators of the health of the American landscape, including productive and essential croplands in the Midwest. Monarch declines are symptomatic of environmental problems that also pose risks to food production, the spectacular natural places that help define the national identity, and human health.
The alarm has been raised, and we have answered the call. We work with partners to restore and enhance more than 200,000 acres of habitat for monarchs and other pollinators on public and private lands. On top of that, the agency has dedicated an additional $2 million in funding for priority projects in three key geographic areas:
In spring breeding areas in Texas and Oklahoma, projects include a Native Pollinator Initiative in Texas and an effort to increase commercial production of milkweed;
In the Midwest Corn Belt, an area important for summer breeding, projects include Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project and efforts by the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which engages private landowners in conservation;
In areas west of the Rockies, the Service is funding work to develop a range-wide approach for conserving the western monarch population.
We have also laid out a four-pronged framework for inspiring innovation and conservation action for monarchs and other pollinators inside and outside of the agency:
Monarch butterflies on goldenrod. Photo by Rachel Laubhan/USFWS.
Our unique position to lead and coordinate landscape-level conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly. The collective efforts of federal, state, tribal and local governments — along with private industry, non-profits, universities and anyone with a backyard — will be needed to tackle this enormous challenge. Such a gathering of forces requires leadership. Director Ashe chairs an Interagency High Level Working Group on Monarch Conservation that brings together the federal family for coordinated action.
But the effort can’t stop there: state, tribal and municipal governments play an important role. Through the Monarch Joint Venture, a diverse partnership coordinating efforts to protect the monarch migration across the United States, we can tap the major players working on monarchs and invest in the resources needed to tackle this problem from the broadest perspective.
The monarch also requires habitat and conservation action in Mexico and Canada, which is why we are working through the Trilateral Committee of the three nations to develop collaborative efforts throughout the entire range of the butterfly.
Everyone has a role in contributing to science-based, adaptive management to support increasing the monarch population in a changing climate. Working with scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Monarch Joint Venture will help find the best available science to refine, focus and implement strategic, landscape-scale solutions to this monumental conservation challenge. Leveraging its Strategic Habitat Conservation approach, we will use the monarch butterfly as a flagship species for the agency’s pollinator work. That means that the work conserving and connecting habitat for monarchs will help other critical insect and avian pollinators.
But there’s still a lot that isn’t known. Our Science Applications Program and the Refuge System’s Natural Resources Program Center are working collaboratively with USGS and the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives Network to identify and develop needed tools and monitoring approaches, and to develop a strategy to identify knowledge gaps and critical research needs.
Scientists estimate that monarchs need a million and a half acres of additional habitat each year to grow the eastern population to 300 million butterflies by 2024. We contribute greatly to this national goal by delivering conservation on its own lands as well as through partnerships on other federal and state-owned lands and on private lands through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Coastal programs. There’s also a lot that can be done by tweaking land management practices to benefit pollinators, from when to mow to adapting the size and schedule of prescribed burns.
Working with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, the agricultural community can be educated about the importance of native milkweed and other nectar plants, and how herbicide use can be reduced and modified to protect pollinators without sacrificing crop productivity. And we are not neglecting the need to increase the availability of native seed for habitat restoration.
Perhaps never before have we been presented with such a grand opportunity to inspire a new generation of conservationists in America than with the quest to save the monarch.
In February 2015, the agency launched a public awareness campaign to engage news media, conservation allies, educators, state agencies, local officials, corporations, the agriculture community and others — particularly in urban areas. From pollinator gardens on Service lands to schoolyard habitats, we will work with such partners as the National Wildlife Federation and Monarch Joint Venture to get communities excited about the monarch butterfly. Individual actions matter, from planting milkweed to participating in citizen science monitoring projects. At the end of a decade, the collective actions of individuals will be what saved the monarch butterfly. The road to saving the monarch is long, winding, even hilly and full of roadblocks. But working together with conservation partners, along with battalions of schoolteachers, children and community leaders, we can overcome the hurdles and find a path to success.
You can’t help but draw a comparison between the plight of the monarch and the dramatic journey of the bald eagle — an instantly recognizable animal, an expansive range and a prominent role for man-made chemicals in its demise. With a national conservation effort, we went from just over 400 bald eagles to 10,000 — with the same coordination, we can go from 100 million to 1 billion monarch butterflies. Such a leap requires the engagement of Americans everywhere, and the commitment to take action before it’s too late.