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Monarchs Now Endangered


By Paul James

The iconic Monarch is one of the most recognizable and well studied butterflies on the planet, and is best known for its twice-yearly, 2,500-mile journey across the North American continent between its summer and winter grounds. But sadly, the beloved visitor to our summer gardens is now — and for the first time — officially an endangered species at risk of extinction.

Last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the leading global authority on the status of biological diversity, added the Monarch to its list of endangered species, noting that populations have declined between 23 and 72 percent in the past 10 years.

(Thus far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to make a similar declaration, saying the butterfly is “a candidate” for listing, and that a decision should come sometime in 2024.)

The population decline can be attributed to a combination of factors, all caused by human activity. Topping the list is habitat destruction, specifically urban development and agricultural expansion. Droughts, combined with the increased use of herbicides, have led to a drastic decline in native milkweed plants, which Monarch larvae feed on almost exclusively. An increase in the use of pesticides has reduced both adult and larvae populations. And rising temperatures, fueled by the climate crisis, may trigger earlier migrations which scientists say can affect everything from the availability of nectar sources to breeding cycles.

And yet, all is not lost. Insects, after all, reproduce rapidly (think aphids!) which means that with our help the Monarch population, given time, can rebound. And you can play a role in their comeback.

First, plant milkweed. Several species are available and all are easy to grow. Second, substantially reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides in the garden, especially on and around flowering plants. And third, plant nectar-rich annuals and perennials.

Simple enough, right? Count me in.

Note: The western monarch (which migrates throughout California and other western states) is less studied and even more at risk. Its populations have plummeted 99.9 percent in recent decades, from around 10 million in the 1980s to just 1,914 in 2021, according to the IUCN. The eastern Monarchs — whose flight path covers much of Oklahoma — are the subject of this post. 

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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