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Monarch Butterflies Are Not on the Road to Recovery

Bill Freese - Center for Food Safety
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April 13, 2016

Butterflies in Mexico triple (Al Jazeera America News)

Much as we’d like to believe this year’s upswing in monarch population numbers is the start of a recovery, it’s most likely a passing fluctuation due to unusually favorable weather conditions. The long-term outlook remains bleak, as indicated by a recent study that predicts an 11 to 57% chance of extinction for the monarch migration over the next two decades. Efforts to restore habitat are welcome, but they haven’t begun to reach the scale necessary for a true recovery. The still small size of the monarch population makes it more vulnerable to severe weather events, such as the unusual winter storm in early March that has killed a substantial though yet unknown number of overwintering monarchs in Mexico.

In 2014, monarch advocates led by Center for Food Safety filed a petition to list the monarch as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed in December 2014 that ESA protection may be warranted, but then failed to make a final decision by the ESA-prescribed 12-month deadline. Accordingly, advocates were compelled recently to seek a court-imposed deadline for the Service to make its determination. Protection under the ESA is essential to ensure the monarch’s survival.

Monarch lovers across North America know that this is the season for counting their favorite insect. Come winter, monarchs east of the Rockies gather together in oyamel fir forests in the mountains west of Mexico City. Impossible to count when flitting about in the summer, monarch numbers can be estimated quite well based on the area of forest they occupy in winter.

The latest count came out less than a month ago. Monarch overwintering habitat (and hence numbers) more than tripled over last year, from just over one to four hectares (2.8 to 10 acres). Based on this upswing, NPR declared “Monarch butterflies are on the rebound,” while others claimed that a “recovery” or “big comeback” is underway. The monarch population has reportedly “soared,” generating “enormous enthusiasm” and providing cause for “celebration.”

...But before we begin celebrating, let’s consider two key questions. How significant is this year’s count? Does it have anything to do with habitat restoration efforts?

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Related: Peering Inside the Brain of a monarch butterfly reveals how an 'Internal Compass' Helps It Make Epic Migrations (Daily Mail)

Related: Long-Term Decline of Eastern Monarch May End in Extinction by 2026 (PerfScience)

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