By Dec. 20: Tell the feds to do the right thing by the Monarch butterfly

They come and they go. 

The heart soars when they arrive, orange beauties floating into the garden. What was just another day has turned magical. It really is spring. We share the news.

There’s a pang of regret when they depart. Also a flash of hope, as a Monarch butterfly soars southwards into the sky. A tiny determined insect’s 4,600-kilometre migration unites the continent. We have yet to decode the mystery of how it knows where to go and how to get there. It’s fitting that there are feasts when it arrives in Mexico.

But our feckless ways have made the Monarch’s seasonal journeys so perilous, its sojourns in our northern breeding grounds so challenging, and its long rest in the southern wintering grounds so unpredictable.

So it’s about time we stepped up.

By having our government do the right thing.

Six years ago, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the Monarch’s status as endangered, based on a decline in habitat quality at the central Mexican overwintering sites and through the migration routes and increased pesticide use in the breeding grounds across North America.

Now, Ottawa is finally looking at officially listing the North American migratory Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act and it’s asking the public to participate in a consultation process. “The feedback received will help inform the decisions made by Environment and Climate Change Canada in administering the Species at Risk Act,” according to a government release. 

The deadline for comment is December 20. Here’s the link. (Included in the consultation are two western bumblebees that were assessed as endangered by COSEWIC - in 2014. Sure, we want them protected too.) 

Sorry for the short notice! A speedy way to get the job done is to go to this David Suzuki Foundation site where there’s a letter you can sign, or change as you please.

Specifically, comment is invited on the very readable COSEWIC report (linked here) that recommended a raising of the Monarch’s status to  endangered (2016) from special concern (1997),

These are some of the key points (I have focused on the Eastern population, not the genetically identical but geographically distinct Western population):

- Canada - south of the 50° latitude in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, and south of 54° to the west – makes up approximately 10 per cent of the Monarch’s global breeding habitat. Southern Ontario and Quebec hold the most significant Monarch breeding areas in Canada.

- There’s an 11% to 57% chance of quasi-extinction of the eastern Monarch population over the next 20 years.

- In the winter, all migratory Eastern Monarchs are concentrated in a few acres of Oyamel fir forests of central Mexico that have been fragmented and degraded by conversion to agriculture, fire, logging, and forest thinning.

- Even small-scale logging is a potential threat because openings and thinned areas in the forest expose overwintering Monarchs to winter storms, cold temperatures and wet conditions.

- Milkweed decline is strongly correlated with the use of herbicide-resistant crops. Although glyphosate has been in use since the 1970s, herbicide-resistant crops have enabled farmers to apply glyphosate more frequently, at higher rates, and later in the growing season than with conventional crops.

- Neonicotinoid insecticides were introduced in the 1990s and include imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid, thiacloprid, and dinotefuran. Neonicotinoids are approved for use as seed treatments, soil applications, and foliar sprays on oilseeds, grains, pulse crops, fruits, vegetables, greenhouse crops, ornamental plants, and Christmas trees in Canada. (Alas yes! There’s a festive angle to this sad story.)

- Neonicotinoids persist in soil and are translocated to plant tissues to levels potentially lethal to non-target insects.

- The increased use of herbicides and subsequent decline in milkweeds is a significant threat facing Monarchs throughout their North American range. Increased herbicide use may also cause declines in nectar supplies needed by migrating Monarchs, which leads to reduced overwinter survival.

- Climate change is expected to have an effect, with drought, unseasonable frosts and extreme weather events taking a toll, and early warming in spring triggering Monarch departures northwards before milkweed and nectar plants emerge along the way.

Recent developments:

- In December 2020, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service found that the butterfly qualified for protection as an endangered species. But in an act of environmental betrayal, the US decided not to list it, stating that the government lacked the resources to protect it, other species being of a higher priority.

- In July this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) entered the Monarch as endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species due to habitat destruction and climate change.

- The most recent figures from World Wildlife Fund Mexico, which does the annual survey of the forest area occupied by Monarch butterflies found an increase of about 35 per cent in 2021-22, to 2.8 hectares from 2.1 hectares in 2020-21 (18.1 hectares in 1996-97). A sign of recovery, the organization said, “albeit a fragile one.” The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation noted that scientists estimate that at least six hectares are necessary to sustain the eastern population.
The overall trend is downwards and there's no cause for optimism unless vigorous recovery measures are taken. "The number of monarchs are fluctuating around low levels," says Greg Mitchell, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Canadian Co-chair on the Tri-national Monarch Conservation Science Partnership. "The population has declined but it appears to be stabilizing. To the best of our knowledge, the levels now are lower than they need to be to be confident that the migratory phenomenon will continue." 

A study undertaken by Mitchell and two other Canadian researchers, published in the journal Frontiers in Evolution and Ecology, suggests spring weather conditions in Texas are largely what is driving year-to-year fluctuations in the breeding population numbers in eastern Canada.

Meanwhile, Andy Davis, a researcher at the University of Georgia, working from 25 years of data from the American Butterfly Association's annual count, has concluded that the Monarch is doing just fine. His claims have been picked up by some gardening websites. Davis's work is "disappointing," Mitchell comments. "That analysis is suspect. It uses survey data from locations where butterflies and Monarchs will easily be observed. Not from where they have disappeared. They included Florida in their estimates, which is crazy, given that it isn’t the migratory population."

Now here’s the thing. Monarchs won’t vanish from the face of the earth if they stop migrating. There are non-migratory populations in the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as Florida. ‘Vagrant’ Monarchs crossed the Atlantic in the 19th century and there are populations in Portugal, Spain, North Africa and various islands. Others reached Australia in 1870, no one knows how, and have colonized the Pacific, including Hawaii, New Zealand, Taiwan and the Philippines. These are all non-migratory butterflies.

It's the Monarch here in Canada that will become extirpated if we don’t address the vast swathes of herbicide-drenched agricultural land, the diminishing Oyamel forest and the climate-related weather catastrophe.

The migration – the longest undertaken by any insect - is what is endangered. If the migration ceases, we will lose a unique creature with a mysterious navigational capability, one that defies any conclusive scientific explanation.

The Monarch that leaves Mexico to lay the first generation of eggs in Texas is the very one that travelled from Canada or some other point in North America in the fall eight months before. But the one that makes it back here in spring has gone through two or three generations as it moved north up the continent. Then another two or three generations reproduce in Canada. It’s amazing!

Our Monarchs are the healthiest, another reason to fight for their survival. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a parasite that causes deformed, crumpled wings, smaller size and weakness, is less prevalent among migratory butterflies (8 per cent, compared to 70 per cent in the resident Florida population) and the ones that travel from the most northerly points are the least infected.

What is the result if the government does list the Monarch as endangered? The federal Species at Risk Act only applies on federal lands - so those are a good place to start with immediate action to reduce pesticide use, the Suzuki Foundation says. It's hoped that the new status will heighten public awareness and galvanize efforts to restore habitat - and thus help protect all biodiversity, the topic being discussed by government representatives from around the world in Montreal right now.

Among the efforts I would like to see is a new mindset for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, so we start to lead the way in food production methods that aren’t predicated on high levels of pesticides, making the world a healthier place for us as well as pollinators.

I’d like Ottawa to help landowners (farmers, industry, institutions) create Monarch habitat by planting milkweed and native nectar plants. I’d like there to be cross-Canada Monarch corridors by turning highway medians into habitat (a US study in  Frontiers in Evolution and Ecology looks at a protocol that would assist roadside managers in that regard). 

And I want Canada to engage with the Mexican government to help build livelihoods for people in and near the Biosphere Reserves, so they no longer turn to environmental destruction for survival. Templates are needed for similar undertakings anywhere that species at risk are in conflict with human poverty. 

What are your ideas? Let’s push the government into action. So the Monarchs can come and go as they please.


On the Monarch migration trail: It's such a long way

Monarchs embarked on the journey north 

Year of crisis for Monarch butterflies
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