The Biden administration can save monarch butterflies

The butterfly’s plummeting population warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, and now is the time for action.

There are few species as iconic as the monarch butterfly. Children across the country quickly learn to identify their unique appearance -- white polka dot body and vibrant orange and white polka dot pattern on its wings. Even in Hawaii, my home state, this butterfly has become a familiar sight.

The monarch’s widespread fame is rooted in the species’ annual migration. An ultra-marathon of sorts, some fly as far as 3,000 miles on their journey to beat the cold of winter. Monarch butterflies make their way across nearly every part of North America, and, as a result, people all over the country see these majestic creatures at some point in their migration, or at least they did. As monarch populations drop to concerning levels, we must draw on our shared knowledge and appreciation of these butterflies to make sure they  can continue embarking on its cross country journey. 

Fortunately, the new Biden administration is taking important first steps to protect the monarch by reviewing a recent decision on endangered species protections and considering protecting these butterflies.

Listing the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act is both necessary and timely. In the latest Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, fewer than 2,000 monarchs were spotted by volunteers. This population, living west of the Rocky Mountains, has fallen 99.9 percent since the 1980s. Their eastern counterparts have declined more than 80 percent since the 1990s.

Many daunting factors have led to these declines. Habitat loss due to residential or agricultural land conversion and pesticides, such as glyphosate (the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup), are making life hard for monarchs. 

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released findings last December stating that protections for the monarch were “warranted but precluded.” In other words, the monarch qualifies for protections, but higher priority considerations stall further action. The Service named the monarch as a candidate for listing in the future, ultimately delaying concrete actions. 

But there is now hope that protections may come sooner. The Biden administration has announced that it will review the U.S. FWS findings for the monarch. Designation under the Endangered Species Act would provide the monarch with protections from harmful federal activities, offer potential habitat designations and create plans for recovering the species.

Even as we wait for the results of this review, we can take action now to support conservation efforts in preparation for the monarch’s migration north in the spring.

Even bumblebees enjoy Asclepias tuberosa, also known as butterfly milkweed. This milkweed type is great for the southern Great Plains and central Midwest. Photo of bee and butterfly (above) from Pixabay.  

One proactive step is planting milkweeds, a group of native wildflowers. The plants support a range of insect species and can add dazzling splashes of color to your home or community gardens. Adding milkweed to your garden can provide habitat for monarchs in areas where it might have been lost. This plant serves as a necessary part of the monarch’s breeding cycle. When caterpillars hatch from eggs laid on the plant, they consume the leaves as their sole food source. If you’re considering planting milkweed, please remember one important tip: You must choose varieties native to your area. For example, tropical milkweed planted in areas where it is not suitable leads to a buildup of parasitic spores on the plant, harming butterflies.

In addition to milkweed, other nectar-rich plant species that bloom in early spring are helpful food sources for monarch butterflies flying north from their overwintering sites. These milkweed and nectar guides from Xerces have planting recommendations based on your location. Participating in monarch counting events is another great way to get involved outdoors. Volunteer opportunities near you can be found here

While there’s a lot to be done to improve monarch butterfly conservation and research, the actions we take now can help ensure that this iconic species continues to fly over the American landscape for generations to come. We appreciate the Biden administration’s intent to review findings on the monarch butterfly and hope that the administration takes action under the Endangered Species Act to protect this beloved species.