'The Bottom Has Just Dropped Out': As Insect Populations Plummet, Scientists Wonder Why

Despite being perilously close to extinction, monarch butterflies will not receive federal protection because 161 other species are a higher priority, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.

"We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act. However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith in a news release.

The announcement highlights the severity of the ongoing extinction crisis, said Sarina Jepsen, the director of endangered species and aquatic programs for the Portland-based Xerces Society. The Xerces Society is a nonprofit environmental organization that focuses on the conservation of invertebrates. It is named after the first butterfly to go extinct due to human activity in North America.

"I think this really underscores how poorly funded the Fish and Wildlife Service is for the job they have in this age where we have so many species of animals and plants facing extinction," she said.

Although the once-common butterflies are a "candidate" for threatened or endangered listing, they won't receive that level of protection this year. Instead, the service intends to propose to list the butterfly in 2024 for either threatened or endangered status, "if it still warrants" listing, said Lori Nordstrom, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife assistant director in the Midwest Region. Until then, Fish and Wildlife will review the butterflies' status.

"We have to work within the resources that we have," Nordstrom said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

The service opted not to upgrade the Northern spotted owl's protection status for the same reason Monday.

For the western population of butterflies, which spend the winters nesting in California, the delay could be a finishing stroke.

"The western population can't necessarily wait five years," Jepsen said. "We're witnessing the collapse of the western population this year."

During the Xerces Society's 2020 Thanksgiving count, volunteers found fewer than 2,000 monarchs nesting in California. The two years prior, volunteers counted around 30,000, a paltry ghost compared to the millions that used to overwinter in California. Or, the hundreds of thousands of butterflies documented along California's coast as recently as the mid-2010s.

The minimum number of individuals needed for the species to survive locally is about 30,000, according to a 2017 Washington State University study.

"We're really looking at a future where monarchs don't exist in the western U.S," Jepsen said. "We don't have much time to save monarchs, especially in the West."

The eastern monarch population, which winters in Mexico, is doing slightly better than the western one. Scientists estimate it's only declined by 75% since the 1990s.

However, insects (unlike vertebrates) can't be broken into distinct population segments under the endangered species act. If they could, it's possible the western population would have qualified for federal protections.

Although the butterfly's situation is dire, Jepsen said Tuesday's news could have been worse.

"This is not a bad outcome, but it could have been better," she said. "They could have made a decision that listing is not warranted. And they didn't."

The ruling won't immediately impact Washington State's monarch butterfly work, said Taylor Cotten, a manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's wildlife diversity division. WDFW will continue to monitor breeding habitat, he said, although precious few butterflies are coming to the Evergreen State.

"Unfortunately monarch butterfly populations have declined so much that Washington isn't getting a whole lot of monarchs at this point," he said.

In 2020, volunteers sighted a single wild monarch in the entire state. WDFW staff tasked with surveying the population found none.

"Most of the recovery actions that need to happen right now aren't needed in Washington," he said.

Monarch butterflies used to be common throughout the western and eastern United States. Each year, millions of the brightly colored insects with paper-thin, gossamer wings, migrate up to 3,000 miles to spend the winter in California and Mexico. There, they bundle together, tens of thousands clustering onto a single tree, to stay warm.

In California, they spend the winters along the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz and San Diego roosting in eucalyptus, Monterey pines and Monterey cypresses.

Twenty years ago, it's estimated there were 1 million or 2 million monarchs west of the Rockies, said David James, a professor of entomology at Washington State University's Extension Service location in Prosser.

Nationwide, monarch populations have declined by 80% to 90% in many areas, according to recent studies. The reasons behind the precipitous drop aren't entirely clear . However, loss of habitat, the widespread use of insecticides and herbicides, and climate change are all likely culprits.

This year's dramatic drop in California may be due to widespread forest fire throughout the state, Jepsen said.

Still, despite their fragile appearance, monarch butterflies are tough and James isn't ready to write them off.

Nor is he unhappy that the Fish and Wildlife Service opted not to list them.

Since 2014, when the service was first asked to add the butterfly to the endangered species list, public awareness and conservation have exploded. Citizens started planting milkweed, the butterflies' food source, in their yards and apartments. Conservation groups worked with farmers to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides, which can hurt milkweed and monarchs, respectively.

"A huge amount has been done in the last six years," James said. "In my view, it being listed, a lot of that would have to have gone away because listed species become something the average person can't touch or interfere with."

Instead he called Tuesday's news the "appropriate decision," although he's quick to emphasize that monarch butterflies are still in dire trouble.

That's even if he's not so sure they're on the edge of extinction.

That conviction comes from his work in Australia, where he first studied the butterfly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the monarch butterfly population had suddenly and inexplicably crashed like a "mirror image of California," he said. The population fell well below what scientists believed was the minimum number of individuals needed for the species to survive. Because monarchs are a nonnative species in Australia, no one did anything.

And yet, decades later, there are still some monarch butterflies in Australia.

"They haven't gone extinct. That's what makes me more optimistic," James said. "They are tough. It takes a lot to extinguish them completely, and certainly they are suffering and we are responsible for that. But we have the capacity and capability to bring them back."

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