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On August 26th 2014, The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, The Xerces Society, and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted a petition to the Secretary of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that the monarch butterfly be granted threatened status under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The petition is quite thorough (159 pages) and details evidence of the decline in monarch numbers, the numerous causes for the decline and the large number of threats to the population due to natural (parasites and predators) and human related causes ranging from pesticides to climate change. It’s an excellent summary of information those of us interested in monarchs should be familiar with. The full petition can be found at xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/monarch-esa-petition.pdf
The petition has generated a great deal of discussion via social media, our discussion list (Dplex-L) and among groups as diverse as collectors, amateur butterfly enthusiasts and commercial butterfly breeders. There is a great deal of concern as to how threatened status would affect how we all interact with monarchs whether it would be through collecting, rearing, tagging or various forms of monitoring. These concerns are heightened by the presumption that a decision on this petition could happen soon. Further, there is some confusion about the terminology and process involved in designating a species as endangered or threatened.
The following paragraphs are intended to help clarify some of the issues associated with the petition.
We need to be clear on the terminology.
“An ‘endangered species’ is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A ‘threatened species’ is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” (fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf).
Monarchs clearly aren’t endangered. This petition requests threatened status for the monarch based on the presumption that the monarch migration is threatened due to the loss of a significant portion of its breeding range in the upper Midwest, i.e. the corn belt. But, is it? That’s a matter of evidence and interpretation. As this discussion proceeds, we need to make it clear in all communications that it’s about the migration and not the species per se.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to respond to the petition. It’s likely they will accept the petition for further evaluation and will set a date for a public comment period that will start in about 15 months. This will be followed by further evaluation, perhaps requests for additional data, etc. Most of these petitions require lengthy reviews and revisions. Due to the large number of petitions for threatened and endangered status for a wide range of plants and animals, the significant number of high priority cases under consideration and personnel limitations at Fish and Wildlife, it could be many years, 5 at a minimum, possibly 10 or more, unless the monarch decline accelerates, before a determination is made as to whether monarchs are deserving of threatened status.
A schematic of the process can be found at fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/listing-petition-process.html
A key statement is the following:
“A positive one-year finding can be incorporated into a proposed listing or, if a prompt proposal is precluded by other listing activities, the proposal may be deferred. These ‘warranted but precluded’ proposals require subsequent one-year findings on each succeeding anniversary of the petition until either a proposal is undertaken or a ‘not warranted’ finding is made.”
My understanding is that most proposals of this type are repeatedly deferred – some for as long as 20 years.
Petitions of this sort can have both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, they tend to rally the advocates, draw broader attention to real conservation problems and attract funding that can help mitigate the problem. On the other hand, private landowners and other groups that have an interest in the status quo often challenge such proposed conservation measures. The fear of regulation, or the possibility of the government telling landowners what they can and can’t do with their land, rallies the opposition. This polarization can become political. There are a number of ongoing battles along these lines. Monarch conservation needs to remain apolitical and will be best served if we engage landowners rather than drive them away. The petition ends with a request for critical habitat designation (p 113). With statements such as “‘Of equal or more importance is the determination of the habitat necessary for that species’ continued existence… If the protection of endangered and threatened species depends in large measure on the preservation of the species’ habitat, then the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat.’ H. Rep. No. 94-887 at 3 (1976).” But nowhere in this section, or elsewhere, is it clear what critical habitat means in the case of monarch butterflies or how it might be designated and protected. Designations of critical habitat will have to be carefully crafted to avoid a backlash from landowners.
It is clear, as we have pointed out many times, that the monarch population is in decline due to loss of habitat. The petition is all about protection and covers habitat loss in great detail. However, protection alone will not stop the decline in monarch numbers. Unless we collectively address the annual loss of habitat with a significant recovery plan that restores at least 1-1.5 million acres of milkweed/monarch habitat per year – the eastern monarch migration will dwindle further to the point where it will be truly threatened. It’s been evident for some time that, petition or not, we have to restore habitats for monarchs. (monarchwatch.org/blog/2014/03/monarch-butterfly-recovery-plan/).
Monarch Watch is engaged with a large number of colleagues in discussions about how to provide more habitat for monarchs. The White House supports these initiatives through the Presidential Memorandum of 20 June. We are making progress with these discussions, and the goal is to implement broader conservation measures by next spring. If we (the monarch community in general) can create the needed partnerships and collaborations and obtain significant funding, the monarch migration can be saved. Saving the monarch migration is one of the easier conservation challenges we face. Let’s do it!