We are proud to announce that the Conservation Law Center's first Community Conservation Project will be on behalf of the monarch butterfly. This week, supporters of CLC will be receiving milkweed seeds in the mail and an invitation to plant the wildflowers in their neighborhoods. The plants will provide vital food and habitat for the monarch, a threatened species currently under consideration for endangered species status.
"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly."
A flash of orange and black wings, a quick fluttering of fiery color amidst the muted tones of native wildflowers; this is the instantly recognizable and beloved monarch butterfly. Found virtually everywhere milkweeds—their host plants—grow, they are iconic for several reasons: their incredible, mulit-generational migrations spanning more than 2000 miles, their usefulness as pollinators, and their sheer beauty (not observed merely by the poets).
In the late 1800s monarch butterflies were abundant throughout their range, which consists of much of North America and parts of Canada and is concentrated most heavily in the “Corn Belt” of the Midwest. An additional western population overwinters throughout much of California. In the town of Pacific Grove, California, an 1874 observer described “millions” of monarchs “fluttering around,” “while overhead stout branches of firs dropped their weight.” So many butterflies the trees could not hold them! Only limited historic data on monarch populations is available, but estimates range from 1 to 10 million for the western overwintering population alone. At one time, this was one of North America’s most common butterflies.
Yearly monitoring of monarch populations on a large scale only began in 1997 in response to concerns about population decline, and a precipitous drop has been observed even since then. The western overwintering population has decreased by 50% since 1997, and the eastern population has decreased by 90%. The California overwintering monarch population alone has declined from 1.2 million in 1997 to approximately 300,000 in the winter of 2015.
The loss of monarch populations is due largely to the reduction in the number of milkweed plants in the North American landscape. Monarchs depend heavily on milkweed for their survival; eggs are laid on the underside of young milkweed leaves in the spring, and larvae eat the milkweed as they develop and prepare for their transformation into butterflies. Formerly, milkweed plants could be found in uncultivated prairies and grasslands and in agricultural fields (they would grow on the edges of fields and in between the rows of corn and soybeans). But since the introduction of Round-Up resistant seed varieties, which make it possible to blanket fields with the potent herbicide, milkweed has all but disappeared from agricultural fields, an innocent victim but a casualty nonetheless. Additionally, farmers have become more specialized over time, eliminating fences and fencerows that would have previously made space for milkweed plants. Meanwhile commercial and residential development has claimed more and more of America’s open prairies and grasslands, further limiting milkweed’s range.
Given the challenges facing monarch butterflies, in 2014 the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the US Government to classify the monarch butterfly as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. This petition is currently under consideration.
Meanwhile, we can promote monarch population recovery by planting native species of milkweed in our gardens and neighborhoods. We hope that someday monarch butterflies can regain their former numbers, inspiring future generations of poets with their majesty and grace.
“Petition to Protect the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus Plexippus Plexippus) Under the Endangered Species Act.” The Center for Biological Diversity. 2014.
“Western Monarch Overwintering Population Counts Released.” Monarch Joint Venture. Monarch Joint Venture, 5 February 2016. Web. 19 February 2016.
 Quoted in Lane, J. “Overwintering Monarch Butterflies in California: Past and Present.” Biology and Conservation of the Monarch Butterfly. Eds. B. Malcolm and M.P. Zalucki. Los Angeles, CA: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1993. 335-344.