The monarch butterfly is threatened with extinction, but will not come under federal protection because other species are a higher priority, federal officials announced Tuesday.
Monarchs have long captured human hearts, fluttering through yards, parks and fields on wings that look like miniature works of art. But their numbers have been decimated by climate-change-fueled weather events, combined with pervasive habitat loss in the United States.
“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,” Aurelia Skipwith, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. “However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions.”
As part of the decision, monarchs’ status will be reviewed each year by the agency and conservation efforts will continue. In recent years, countless monarch enthusiasts have planted milkweed, the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat, to help sustain the species. Milkweed’s presence has declined across monarch breeding grounds since farmers started using crops that are genetically modified to tolerate Roundup, a brand of weedkiller.
The United States is home to two populations of monarchs, one on each side of the Rocky Mountains. Eastern Monarchs overwinter in Mexico, and their western counterparts overwinter on the California coast. While both populations of monarchs are declining, Western monarchs are in free-fall.
“We are dealing with a climate that’s changing very fast,” said Chip Taylor, the founder and director of Monarch Watch and an emeritus professor at the University of Kansas. “The immediate answer is two things. One, we restore a lot of habitat. And two, we try to convince our fellow citizens and particularly our politicians that we have to do something about greenhouse gases.”