Environmental groups push feds on monarch butterfly protections

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Groups threaten to sue U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its delay in determining monarch butterfly Endangered Species Act status

January 05, 2016

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

Two environmental groups are threatening legal action against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the agency’s failure to determine the federal protection status of monarch butterflies.

“We can’t force them to protect monarchs but we can force them to make a decision,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups who launched the lawsuit.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety yesterday filed the notice of intent to sue, citing an 80 percent decline in monarch populations over the past two decades and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to respond to a petition requesting federal protection.

The lawsuit seeks to force the agency’s hand in deciding whether or not to list the monarchs as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

The orange and black butterflies, which can be found throughout the U.S. in the summer and in Mexico mountain forests in the winter, are not only a charismatic and beautiful species, but also a sentinel for an ecosystem out of whack.

Their numbers have been plummeting. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that the population dropped from about 1 billion to 56 million over the past two decades.

The major problem is habitat loss. Monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed plants—the only food their larvae can eat. Milkweed has been on the decline as prairies are increasingly converted into farms.

Scientists also point to an uptick in use of genetically modified crops that can withstand large doses of herbicides. Milkweed often grows near crops such as soybeans and corn in the Midwest and dies from the herbicides.

Researchers estimate that there was a 58 percent decline in milkweeds in the Midwest from 1990 to 2010, which paralleled an 81 percent decline in Midwest monarchs during that time.

Deforestation in Mexico, drought and extreme weather events are also partly to blame for the population dips.

The lawsuit is in response to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s inaction on a 2014 petition to list the monarchs as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to make a determination on the petition, which it’s required to do within 12 months.

Those 12 months passed last month.

Curry said the agency has blamed the delay on the butterflies’ wide range, which means more data and information to review in order to make a decision.

The agency last year pledged $3.2 million to help save monarchs, which annually migrate thousands of miles between the U.S. and Mexico.

More than half the money was earmarked for habitat restoration between California and the central Midwest, while the rest went to a fund to pay people to conserve precious habitat for the butterflies, mainly from north to south down the central U.S.

Curry said that the money isn’t enough to restore 1 percent of the habitat already lost.

Current weather projections offer some good news for the charismatic, white-speckled flutterers, as mild winter weather is expected to help populations rebound a bit.

“Despite the expected increase in the overwintering monarch population this year due to favorable weather, the monarch is still severely jeopardized by milkweed loss in its summer breeding grounds due to increasing herbicide use on genetically engineered crops,” George Kimbrell, a senior attorney at Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials would not comment on pending litigation but spokeswoman Laury Parramore said the agency has not "yet established a schedule for addressing each of the backlogged petitions and so do not have a firm or projected date for a 12-month finding for monarch butterflies."

They have 60 days to respond before the lawsuit takes effect.

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For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 

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