I have always been fascinated by insects, and even as a young child I felt a deep sympathy for these misunderstood creatures. Before I had vocabulary to describe the revolving diversity I witnessed as a kid, I recall a sense of nostalgia for the moths, cicadas, bees, and butterflies who appeared in great numbers and animated various plant types around my city. Their ebbs and flows offered clues and added nuance to the flowers, trees, and a change in the weather. When I was young they seemed like part of the changing seasons, reliable and abundant, but I came to recognize how delicate and precarious their existence is, and the consequences of their decline.
My path in insect conservation led me to Utah, where a similar fond sentiment is shared for the summer arrival of monarch butterflies, and where a sense of alarm is growing over their rapid disappearance. People don’t see these orange and black beauties dancing around their gardens anymore. Their kids have fewer chances to witness the magic of metamorphosis playing out on a milkweed plant.
In fact, monarch butterflies are facing a dire situation across the country, with their numbers plummeting dangerously close to extinction levels. Two major populations occupy North America—the Eastern and Western population—that carry with them the innate behavior of migration between summer breeding and overwintering grounds. Their international migration routes effectively include parts of southern Canada, nearly every state in the U.S.A., and a corridor of eastern Mexico. With a range this vast, questions about threats and habitat needs are difficult to answer. It is a challenge to coordinate data collection on their distribution and implement appropriate recovery efforts. This month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to list monarch butterflies as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, after years of nationwide data collection and conservation strategy planning.
Whatever the Service’s decision may be, the monarch is just one prominent example of a trend of disappearing insects. Our understanding of our relationship to these fragile creatures becomes clearer as they vanish, and the systems we rely on to produce food, recycle nutrients, and keep our air and water clean are showing tremendous signs of breakdown.
I wish I could offer a glimmer of hope in the face of this crisis. I wish I could share my love for insects, and spiders, and other “creepy crawlies” that people fear, because our lack of understanding prevents us from seeing their value and the respect they deserve. What I can offer is some insight into what sort of actions need to be taken.’
Support through Funding
For western monarchs in particular, the population is very near collapse, with projected numbers this winter around 6,000 individuals (down from 30,000 the last two years, and 1.2 million in the 1990s—a population loss of 99.5%). Efforts to restore critical early spring habitat for western monarchs leaving overwintering sites are focused in the foothills and Central Valley of northern California, and this emergency action needs support through funding. Organizations committed to taking immediate action include the Monarch Joint Venture and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Support through Political Will
Before the pandemic hit this year, a House bill was introduced to provide support for western monarch conservation. The Monarch Action, Recovery, and Conservation of Habitat Act (or the MONARCH Act) of 2020 would establish a Rescue Fund through the USDA that would provide grant support to states implementing the conservation strategies of the Western Monarch Conservation Plan of 2019. Momentum on passing this bill stalled as focus on COVID became priority, but lawmakers must be reminded that these actions are still critical to the existence of our beloved western monarch butterflies.
My hope is that we see monarch declines as a wake-up call to act collaboratively, that our collective misunderstanding of all insects and their valuable roles in our lives can be remedied through curiosity, outreach and conversation, and that we find ourselves delighting in the chance to share our reverence of these creatures with all generations, young and old.