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Editorial: What the decline of the Monarch butterfly tells us (and what you can do about it)

Editorial: What the decline of the Monarch butterfly tells us (and what you can do about it)

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Government moves slowly. Here’s how slowly: For the problem we’re about to discuss, some 26 generations will have come and gone between the time when the government was asked to act and when it will decide whether to act.

In human terms — where a generation is typically measured at 25 years rather than a lifetime — that would be about 650 years. What would we think of a government that, presented with a problem in 1370 — when Edward III ruled over England, Europeans knew nothing of North America and the wealthiest nation on the planet might have been the Mali empire in Africa — finally announced in 2020 what it would do?

That is probably what the Monarch butterfly is thinking about us right now.

In 2014, the U.S. Interior Department was formally petitioned to declare the Monarch butterfly a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. It’s now scheduled to issue a ruling in December. By the time it does, nearly six and a half years will have elapsed.

In butterfly terms, that roughly 26 generations of Monarch butterflies — 26 generations that have seen their numbers dwindle while humans dawdle.

We appear to have 85% fewer Monarch butterflies than we did just two decades or so ago. On the West Coast, their numbers are down 97% from the 1980s — a point considered near-extinction level. The numbers east of the Rockies — the bulk of the population — aren’t quite as bad, but are still not good. Their numbers bottomed out in 2014 — the year that environmental groups formally petitioned the government — and rebounded some in the years that followed, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. In early 2019, scientists were cheered by reports that the Monarch population was up 144% from the year before. Earlier this year, though, the World Wildlife Fund grimly announced another downturn. The number of butterflies that overwintered in Mexico were down by 53% from the year before, so a little more than half those gains were wiped out. Those up-and-down numbers can be confusing, much like the stock market. Here’s the overall trend that matters: The current numbers are a little higher than 2014, but 15% of what they were in 1997, according to the Monarch Joint Venture project.

Why should we care about the Monarch butterfly? Well, why should we care about anything beautiful? Or anything amazing? Or anything alive? The Monarch is all three. Those four generations (or so) a year make an incredible migration that still mystifies scientists. All the eastern ones spend their winter at a certain spot in the mountains of Mexico, they fly north as far away as southern Canada. Then successive generations of offspring fly south again. The ones who arrive in Mexico have never been there before, but somehow know the way. How? We don’t know. They don’t say. This is the time of year when Monarchs pass through this part of Virginia on their journey south, so perhaps you might want to ask them if you see one.

If things like art and beauty and mystery are concepts too abstract for you, then let’s think about how Monarchs fit into our economy — or our very existence. Monarchs — like bees and other butterflies — are natural pollinators. Every year, pollinators are responsible for anywhere from $235 billion to $577 billion worth of annual food production around the world. That figure, by the way, doesn’t come from tree-hugging environmentalists. It comes from the money-cutting capitalists at Forbes magazine, who last year wrote: “Without pollinators, more than 39 different crops would see a decline in production. In order to meet demand, farmers would be forced to pursue more intensive and less environmentally sustainable practices. More land would likely be needed to match current production levels. Farming these greater land masses would result in greater carbon emissions from the increased operation of tractors and other machinery.” And, oh yes, your food would cost more. Bees, butterflies and other buzzing things are saving you money.

Would we miss the Monarch — scientifically speaking, economically speaking — if the last one fluttered away? We can’t say that. But the demise of the Monarch — along with the demise of bees and other pollinators — ought to tell us something, right? Perhaps we ought to be a little more careful about disrupting natural systems we don’t fully understand, especially if we like to eat. In the case of the Monarch, we know pretty clearly why its numbers have dropped so precipitously. Monarch larvae eat just one thing — milkweed. In evolutionary terms, that’s a design flaw. As milkweed gets eliminated — by herbicides, by development, by highway mowing crews — so do the Monarchs.

Fortunately, while we’re waiting to hear whether the federal government will require certain actions to save the species, Monarchs are not entirely dependent on the government. There are some easy and obvious things that ordinary people can do. You can plant milkweed. You can plant other butterfly-friendly plants — because adult Monarchs thrive on nectar from multiple species. The Environmental Defense Fund and Audubon International have enlisted some unlikely partners — golf courses. Through a program called Monarchs in the Rough more than 700 golf courses around the country have committed to plant Monarch-friendly plants. The nearest ones to us are Heritage Oaks in Harrisonburg; Meadowcreek in Charlottesville; Southern Hills in Danville and Blackthorne Club in Jonesborough, Tennessee. That, of course, raises the question of why other courses in the region haven’t signed up. If you’re a golfer, perhaps you want to ask, eh? Why stop there? Local governments could plant Monarch-friendly plants at parks and schools.

Here’s another measure of how long it’s taken the federal government to grind its way through all the studies required to produce a decision on whether to act. The original petition was filed by two groups — the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety (see?) — and joined by two other petitioners. One was the Xerces Society (which focuses on butterflies) and, interestingly, one individual scientist. That scientist was Lincoln Brower, a biology professor at Sweet Briar College and a worldwide authority on the Monarch. Sadly, he passed away in 2018. Or, in Monarch terms, about eight generations ago.

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