Monarch butterflies qualify for endangered list, but officials may not take action until 2024

Conservationists are concerned the decision falls short of what is needed

The U.S. Wildlife and Fishing Service declared the monarch a candidate for the endangered species list, but said it would wait until 2024 before listing it as such in order to focus on higher priority species. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Federal officials have declared the monarch butterfly “a candidate” for endangered status but punted on taking any action for several years, despite the winged insect’s rapidly declining population, to focus on other species awaiting designation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan calls for an annual review of the monarch’s status to determine if the situation has improved or worsened. As things stand, a proposal for listing the monarch under the Endangered Species Act would come in 2024 unless the situation improves.

Species listed under the act receive several legal protections for critical habitat areas and implementation of recovery plans. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, 99% of species listed have avoided extinction.

“We conducted an intensive, thorough review using rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act,” said Aurelia Skipworth, of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “However, before we can propose a listing, we must focus resources on our higher priority listing actions.”

With monarch populations showing a steep decline over the past 20 years, Kansas conservationists say action to protect the butterfly is warranted. While the decision marks a small victory for the imperiled butterfly, those working to protect the monarch say it is not enough.

Since the mid-1990s the population of the eastern monarch, native to Kansas, has declined by about 80%. The population loss for the western monarch has been even worse — 99% in the previous 40 years.

Experts say reasons for this decline include urbanization, pesticide use, and the replacement of native grassland with crops.

This population loss led environmental groups to push for listing of the monarch in 2014. Since then, efforts by different organizations and individuals have helped restore 5.6 million acres of milkweed plants, a food source and nest for monarch eggs. 

Still, grassroots efforts like these are not the ideal solution, which is why the decision to name the monarch as a candidate for endangered species is considered a step in the right direction.

“We’ve been really saddened to see the peril of pollinators over the years through continued habitat destruction and pesticide use but are glad U.S. Fish and Wildlife is stepping up,” said Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Sierra Club.

In a 2018 report written for the Kansas Rural Center, Pistora detailed concerns about the population decline seen in pollinators like bees and monarchs. He said 35% of all crops and 85% of all wildflowers depend on these pollinators. Pollinators also account for billions of dollars in crop production values.

With such an important role to play, the decision to put off meaningful action has left many concerned for the future of the monarch. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, more than 40 species have gone extinct while on the waiting list.

“Protection for monarchs is needed — and warranted — now,” said George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. “In acknowledging that listing is needed, but still avoiding that decision, the Trump administration has placed Monsanto profits above monarchs. The Biden administration must follow the law and science and protect them.”

Kansas conservation efforts

Kansas is considered by some to be a “stronghold for monarch conservation.” The state is at the heart of the eastern monarch’s migratory route and breeding corridor. Uniquely positioned to conserve large acreage for migratory and breeding habitats, the state launched a conservation plan in 2019.

The Kansas Monarch Conservation Plan is a 20-year objective plan launched in 2019 in a collaborative effort between the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, 105 individuals and 68 organizations across the state.

The 57-page plan prioritizes preserving native grasslands, development of new public and private grasslands and promoting “urban and greenscape gardening.”

Even a small milkweed garden can provide an essential layover for migrating monarchs.

The Kansas Monarch Conservation Plan seeks to educate and assist in recreating migratory and breeding ecosystems for the eastern monarch butterfly.(Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

“Every Kansan can help monarchs on a small or larger scale,” said Chris Berens, chief of ecological services for KDWPT. “The first step is for the individual to obtain more knowledge regarding the biology and needs of monarch and other pollinators and the scale for which the individual can make the most impact — planting native pollinator plants at their homes.”

Several other Kansas organizations across the state have individual conservation efforts, like the University of Kansas-based Monarch Watch, which provides resources on how to purchase milkweed and aid in the process of monarch conservation.

Kansas farmers can also support the efforts through funding and expertise provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to those who agree to support wildflower restoration on their land.