The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will spend a year deciding whether to grant the monarch butterfly protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to an announcement scheduled to be released Wednesday.
The popular insect, once unfathomably numerous across California and the rest of North America, has suffered steep declines in recent years as a result of destruction of the wild milkweed plants the monarchs' young need in order to survive.
The announcement, which will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, comes in response to a petition from insect conservation activists who asked USFWS in August to declare the Monarch a Threatened species.
The petitioners in August included monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, and invertebrate conservation group the Xerces Society.
Monarch butterflies rely on milkweed plants, in the genus Asclepias, to feed their dramatically striped green and yellow larvae. Over the last two decades much of the prairie and wetland habitat in North America that once supported wild milkweed has been converted to agricultural use. Many activists pin the blame for that habitat loss directly on the popular herbicide Roundup, though as we wrote here earlier in the year a massive federal push for ethanol crops is likely a more central cause of the loss of milkweed habitat, with Roundup merely the current tool of choice for killing off all but those ethanol crop plants.
Either way, monarch numbers have dropped precipitously since the 1990s, with estimates of the decline in numbers averaging well into the 90 percent range. With Wednesday's announcement -- released in tandem with a similar announcement that the agency would consider delisting the coastal California gnatcatcher -- USFWS begins a 12-month period in which it will examine the plight of the formerly ubiquitous butterfly. At the end of that year, if USFWS determines that the butterfly needs help, it may propose listing the insect as Threatened or Endangered.
"We are extremely pleased that the federal agency in charge of protecting our nation's wildlife has recognized the dire situation of the monarch", said Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society's endangered species director. "Protection as a threatened species will enable extensive monarch habitat recovery on both public and private lands."
"The Endangered Species Act is the most powerful tool available to save North America's monarchs, so I'm really happy that these amazing butterflies are a step closer to the protection they so desperately need," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.