Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus, may be one of the most distinctive of all Lepidopterans, almost everyone can identify the formerly ubiquitous species as they flutter by. Their bright orange and black markings make them recognizable to humans and serve as a warning to predators; they may be beautiful, but they are also bitter and toxic. Most Americans are familiar with the species due to watching them hover around gardens and landscapes in the summer, however, that may not be happening with the historical frequency or quantity any longer. Data suggests that this iconic insect may be on its way toward extinction; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently announced that a subspecies of monarch butterfly may soon be listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Found throughout the United States, the monarch butterfly migrates great distances over multiple generations every year between breeding and wintering habitats. The best known migratory route is between the U.S. and Mexico, a flight that is upwards of 3,000 miles and plagues with threats and danger. Habitat loss and land use changes are severely impeding migratory routes.
Monarch populations have suffered a serious decline over the last decade which many biologists attribute to the numerous hazards they face during annual migration. Larvae feed primarily on milkweed plants, which have been disappearing across the continent at an alarming rate. The Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity collaborated to submit a petition to add the imperiled subspecies of monarch to the Endangered Species List.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began in 1940, but the ESA didn’t get signed into law until 1973. The goal of the ESA is to protect and attempt to restore animal populations on the verge of extinction. Enforcement and management of the act is administered by the USFWS with assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agencies are currently conducting research to determine the efficiency and efficacy of listing a single subspecies. They will be requesting and accepting input from the public and scientists to aid in their determination, data they seek includes: the biology, range and population trends of the subspecies, habitat requirements, genetics and taxonomy; historical and current range, including distribution patterns; historical and current population levels as well as current and projected trends.
For more information on how you can help improve habitat and forage for migrating, breeding and wintering butterflies and other pollinators visit: http://pollinator.org/npw_action.htm.