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Habitat loss and climate change threaten the iconic monarch butterfly

A close-up of two monarch butterflies sitting on a white person's hand.
Loudon Wildlife Conservancy
The migratory monarch butterfly is known for its annual journey of up to 3,000 miles across the Americas.

An insect species which can evoke childhood memories is in trouble, and has just been added to the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

The orange and black migratory monarch butterfly population has dropped 95% from the 1980s to 2020.

Rebecca Quinonez-Pinon, chief monarch recovery strategist for the National Wildlife Federation, explained effects from climate change meant milkweed was not blooming during the monarch's migration last spring, preventing the butterflies from laying eggs.

She said milkweed is not as common as it used to be across the U.S.

"The main issue is the fact that we continue to lose native habitat," Quinonez-Pinon emphasized. "So, the monarch struggles to survive and maintain a really good population size."

Pesticides sprayed on crops also can inadvertently kill milkweed growing in nearby ditches. Advocates are urging lawmakers to pass the Monarch Action, Recovery and Conservation of Habitat Act to establish a rescue fund and create a conservation strategy.

Quinonez-Pinon pointed out people can help the imperiled species by buying plants from nurseries following best practices for pollinators and turn their yards and gardens into monarch habitat.

"We can provide the native milkweed," Quinonez-Pinon stressed. "We can provide native nectar plants that can help the monarchs also to have a source of food while they are migrating."

She believes many people have an emotional connection to the iconic butterfly, citing reverence for the insect In Mexico, where their migratory arrival in winter coincides with the country's "Day of the Dead" festival.

"It's a great ambassador; it's in so many different places," Quinonez-Pinon noted. "That also creates that connection between different communities and cultures."

Advocates say the Recovering America's Wildlife Act, passed by the House of Representatives but awaiting a vote in the Senate, would dedicate almost $1.4 billion dollars to help save multiple wildlife species at risk.