ENCINITAS — A group’s recent “endangered” declaration of the monarch butterfly has caused a bit of a local stir, especially among experts in Encinitas.
The “endangered” label by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global group of environmental experts, picked up national attention after a July press release drew the public’s eye to a severe population decline of the orange-and-black migratory butterfly — a more than 90% drop in four decades.
However, the monarch is not endangered in the United States, at least not yet.
The monarch has been determined a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act in the United States in 2022 by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
And in the fiscal year 2024, the pollinator’s status will be reevaluated for final determination, according to Cat Darst, an assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura.
Scientists have noted declines in monarch populations overwintering in Mexico (from Canada) and California (Colorado). The larger, eastern group is measured by its density and has seen a drastic loss in hundreds of millions by the acre in the past 20 years.
The California monarch has declined from 4.5 million butterflies in the 1980s to fewer than 2,000 in 2020.
“That’s a really serious population crash,” Darst said.
Darst said the Fish and Wildlife Service is aware of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “endangered” designation for monarchs but explained that does little to set legal protections for the butterfly.
“There’s been a steep and dramatic decline in western migratory butterflies,” Darst said. “We have already determined that it is a candidate [for an Endangered Species listing] and will do a full reassessment of the science in 2024.”
However, not all in the butterfly world would welcome an “endangered species” designation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Adding species to the list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act is “solely based on the biological status,” Darst said and required thorough species-specific assessments. Once listed, an animal can be either endangered (close to extinction) or threatened.
“It’s not a fact that they’re coming into extinction,” said Pat Flanagan, of Butterfly Farms in Encinitas, noting an uptick in both migratory populations last year.
Flanagan finds it strange the international group’s release received so much attention. Flanagan said that while much data exists on the monarch, many conservation methods are theory-based.
In 2021, the North American migratory monarch saw a notable population increase, according to the Monarch Joint Venture, which will submit its research during the species assessment for 2024.
In its Monarch Research Review, the organization noted the western monarch population has grown to almost 250,000 from 2020, still dramatically below historical records.
Butterfly Farms, located on Saxony Road and incorporated in 2013 by Flanagan and Tom Merriman, works in partnerships with Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office, the University of California Los Angeles and other universities and conservation experts to research sensitive, threatened and endangered butterfly species — including the monarch.
Flanagan said the group’s article is “not borne out by the migratory numbers,” adding that the western population may also be seeing a shift in its movement.
According to Flanagan, non-migratory monarchs, and those that are choosing not to migrate, are not being counted.
“There are reports of monarchs around all year and big populations in San Diego, especially on the coast and in L.A. along the coast,” Flanagan said.
However, Darst said research has found resident butterflies may be a sign of disease and is not a population that could maintain monarch butterflies over time.
Though an endangered or threatened listing in the United States is based on scientific findings from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, Flanagan isn’t sure it would help.
Unlike his work with the endangered Laguna Mountain Skipper, a butterfly that lives high in the mountains, Flanagan said the monarch populations wouldn’t be best protected under a plan implemented by the Endangered Species Act.
Under the Endangered Species Act, an animal or plant is prohibited from various public interactions.
“Nobody can go near it; nobody can get involved in any way,” Flanagan said. “With monarchs, people can get involved; people can create habitats in their garden. I don’t know how much a listing would affect that … or what would it mean if people weren’t able to get involved in monarch conservation.”
The extreme population loss of the monarch butterfly across the continent can be attributed to several stressors, including loss of habitat, changing climate and the use of insecticides. There’s been a 40% decline in all insect species worldwide – which seriously impacts the environment.
To help maintain butterfly habitats, residents can plant native nectar plants. Be sure to avoid planting tropical milkweed and instead, plant coyote bush.
Experts also say it’s crucial to pay attention to the planting cycle and where to plant to best aid the monarch’s life cycle.
“I think awareness is at an all-time high, and we need to keep it there,” Flanagan said.