There are few species as iconic as the monarch butterfly. Children across the country quickly learn to identify their unique appearance -- white polka dot body and vibrant orange and white polka dot pattern on its wings. Even in Hawaii, my home state, this butterfly has become a familiar sight.
The monarch’s widespread fame is rooted in the species’ annual migration. An ultra-marathon of sorts, some fly as far as 3,000 miles on their journey to beat the cold of winter. Monarch butterflies make their way across nearly every part of North America, and, as a result, people all over the country see these majestic creatures at some point in their migration, or at least they did. As monarch populations drop to concerning levels, we must draw on our shared knowledge and appreciation of these butterflies to make sure they can continue embarking on its cross country journey.
Fortunately, the new Biden administration is taking important first steps to protect the monarch by reviewing a recent decision on endangered species protections and considering protecting these butterflies.
Listing the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act is both necessary and timely. In the latest Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, fewer than 2,000 monarchs were spotted by volunteers. This population, living west of the Rocky Mountains, has fallen 99.9 percent since the 1980s. Their eastern counterparts have declined more than 80 percent since the 1990s.
Many daunting factors have led to these declines. Habitat loss due to residential or agricultural land conversion and pesticides, such as glyphosate (the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup), are making life hard for monarchs.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released findings last December stating that protections for the monarch were “warranted but precluded.” In other words, the monarch qualifies for protections, but higher priority considerations stall further action. The Service named the monarch as a candidate for listing in the future, ultimately delaying concrete actions.
But there is now hope that protections may come sooner. The Biden administration has announced that it will review the U.S. FWS findings for the monarch. Designation under the Endangered Species Act would provide the monarch with protections from harmful federal activities, offer potential habitat designations and create plans for recovering the species.
Even as we wait for the results of this review, we can take action now to support conservation efforts in preparation for the monarch’s migration north in the spring.