Monarch Butterfly Population Down 80%, Monsanto Largely to Blame
A recent report confirms that over 80% of North American monarch butterflies have died. The Xerces Society, a non-profit organization that aims to preserve wildlife through conservation of invertebrates and their habitats, notes that “in the 1990s, estimates of up to one billion monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City.”
Now, however, “researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 56.5 million monarchs remain, representing a decline of more than 80% from the 21-year average across North America.”
The Xerces Society’s figures confirm mounting evidence that has emerged over the last several years. It names several reasons for the severe decline in butterflies. One of the primary causes is the widespread use of herbicides that contain glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicides. Widespread use has killed off milkweed, a plant monarch caterpillars rely upon for sustenance.
In fact, in February, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA over its refusal to address glyphosate’s contribution to the monarch epidemic, arguing that “The longer EPA delays, the greater the risk we could lose the monarch migration.”
The EPA offered a tepid response, saying it was “taking a number of measures to protect the monarch butterfly and other pollinators. With regard to pesticide exposure, EPA is looking holistically at all herbicides, not only glyphosate, to determine the effects on monarchs and resources critical to butterfly populations.”
The Xerces Society, however, maintains that—particularly in the Midwest— “loss of milkweed…is primarily due to the dramatic increase in the use of the herbicide Roundup™ (glyphosate), made possible by the mass-planting of Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerant corn and soy.” Similar chemicals are widely suspected of helping to decimate bee populations.
The organization also cites other environmental risks. It argues that illegal logging has destroyed overwintering regions and replaced them with housing developments. Further, it points out that “extreme weather events may be negatively impacting monarchs in the eastern U.S. and low monarch populations in California are correlated with years of intense drought.” It attributes such extreme weather to climate change.
Natural threats, such as diseases, predators, and parasites also contribute to the scarcity of butterflies, according to Xerces.
In recent years, there has been a considerable effort to save the monarchs. At the end of last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pledged $3.2 million to help. Last summer, environmental organizations filed a petition to add monarch butterflies to the endangered species list. Only two months before that, the White House established a “Pollinator Health Task Force” to focus on saving bees and other increasingly endangered insects. Officials in Vermont are eager to cultivate milkweed to aid the monarch population. Further, with the USDA National Resources Conservation Service, the Xerces Society has planted over 120,000 acres of habitat for monarchs and other pollinators.
Even in the midst of apparent action, the monarch population remains at high risk of near-extinction. While the efforts of various organizations are well-intentioned and possibly even effective, the monarchs are unlikely to make a recovery unless the major threat of glyphosate and Roundup’s toxicity is addressed—an unlikely scenario for a government entrenched in the financial interests of its manufacturer.