If any insect can be called iconic, it is the monarch butterfly. The butterflies, with their large orange and black wings, are easily one of the most recognizable insect species in the United States, and they have been a familiar sight around much the country for generations. But the monarch butterfly is now threatened like never before. Over the last 25 years, nearly one billion butterflies have disappeared, a population decrease of over 90 percent. There are only about 30 million monarch butterflies left, and they are now at the center of $3.2 million restoration effort and may soon be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. How did we get here?
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(Photo: Tom Koerner / USFWS)
The plight of the monarch butterfly was recently highlighted by the The Washington Post, which reports that the destruction of milkweed plants, essentially the sole food source and habitat of monarchs, has decimated the butterfly population. The elimination of milkweed across the country is largely the result of herbicide use by farmers and homeowners. With nothing to eat and nowhere to lay their eggs, the butterflies are dwindling into extinction. Not long ago, when billions of monarchs made their way across the U.S. every year during migrations between Mexico and Canada, this would have been unthinkable.
In order to halt and hopefully reverse the decline, the Fish and Wildlife Service has “launched a major new campaign aimed at saving the declining monarch butterfly.” This initiative includes a partnership with two private conservation organizations, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the fundamental goal of the campaign is to grow milkweed. Two million dollars will go directly toward restoring 200,000 acres of milkweed habitat for monarchs. The restoration work will be targeted at areas along the I-35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota, a central “flyway” that is important to the migrating butterflies’ spring and summer breeding. The remaining $1.2 million, an amount that will be matched by other private and public donors, will be used to start a fund that will finance other habitat conservation projects.
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The population drop has been staggering, but hopefully the problem has been caught early enough so that monarch butterflies can remain a common and colorful sight across the vast North American continent. To learn how you can contribute to the restoration efforts, visit the website of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Save the Monarch Butterfly project.