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Hawai'i CFS

A Crucial Fight: Protecting the Beloved Monarch Butterfly

By Sophia Sunhwan Lee, Intern

June 21, 2023
Center for Food Safety

Intricate patterns, white speckles, and vibrant orange wings are all distinctive features of the beloved monarch butterfly. Chances are, you've encountered one of these dazzling insects at some point in your life. Flying up to 2,500 miles from the U.S. to Mexico and back, Monarchs are the only butterfly species that complete a two-way migration. Monarchs are both culturally and ecologically significant. As a pollinator, monarchs play an essential role in helping many ecosystems thrive. They are responsible for helping the world's favorite flowers and foods flourish.

This year, the count of migrating monarch butterflies is 22% lower than last year. There are currently 5.46 acres of occupied forest area in Mexico, a dramatic drop from the 7.02 acres occupied last year. This decrease in monarch populations has been a pattern for the past two decades, in which Eastern monarch numbers have declined by more than 80%. Since 2008, the monarch population has been dangerously low. So, why are these treasured insects disappearing?

Monarchs are threatened by pesticides, climate change, and illegal logging. A considerable population decrease can be attributed to the pesticide glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup. Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in the United States. Today, 280 million pounds of glyphosate are sprayed each year over 285 million acres of farmland in the U.S., and over 21 million pounds are sprayed by homeowners, on roadways, and in forests. Monarchs have lost an estimated 165 million acres of breeding habitat in the U.S. to the spraying of herbicides like glyphosate. These herbicides wipe out milkweed, the only food that monarch caterpillars consume. Monarchs are also threatened by neonicotinoid insecticides and fungicides. Neonicotinoids kill insects by disrupting their nervous systems and have rapidly become the most widely used insecticides. In addition to pesticides and herbicides, monarchs are significantly impacted by climate change. They are extremely sensitive to temperature changes and rely on temperatures to determine when they migrate, hibernate, and reproduce. Erratic changes in temperature caused by climate change disrupt critical stages of monarchs' life cycles.

The decrease in monarch population might be an indication that other elements of their ecosystems are fading as well. As our climate crisis intensifies, biodiversity loss continues to worsen. Right now, it is imperative to protect balance and biodiversity in our ecosystems, beginning with protecting endangered species such as monarchs. Some conservationists work to preserve monarchs by creating butterfly gardens and preserving land along the monarchs' migration path. Center for Food Safety, alongside the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In a victorious response, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to grant monarchs ESA protections starting in 2024.

Now, more than ever, we need to take action in order to preserve this fleeting species. To help support monarch butterflies, plant milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants, avoid using pesticides, and donate to or volunteer with conservation organizations. However, this fight goes beyond the colorful butterflies we know and love. The fight to protect monarchs is a fight against habitat loss and climate change. It is a crucial and urgent fight for all ecosystems impacted by these issues.

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