With the great fall monarch migration well underway in Texas and across the country, I am haunted by the butterflies I didn’t go see.
A friend invited me, in the winter of 1995, to journey to the mountains of central Mexico to witness the annual clustering of nearly a billion monarch butterflies in the oyamel fir groves. I did not go because I assumed the monarchs would always be there.
There was a time when we could take for granted the stunning orange and black butterflies that were once common every summer from coast to coast and seemingly in every field and backyard in between.
But in the past 20 years the iconic butterfly that has revealed the miracle of metamorphosis to generations of children has declined by 90 percent, dropping from a recorded high of 1 billion monarchs in the mid-1990s to only 35 million last winter, the lowest number ever recorded.
The monarch’s amazing multigenerational migration once boasted huge fluttering clouds that took days to wing past and that broke branches of trees under the masses of resting butterflies, numbers that gave one of our best-known insects an air of invincibility.
Yet today we are at very real risk of being the last generation to witness the monarch migration.
The decline of the monarch is a story of pesticides, pavement and climate change. The dramatic decline has been driven by the widespread planting of genetically-engineered, pesticide-resistant corn and soybeans in the Midwestern Corn Belt where most monarchs were once born. That change has allowed ever-increasing use of the herbicide Roundup, which has nearly wiped out agricultural populations of milkweed, the caterpillar’s only food.
It has been estimated that due to pesticides and development, over the past two decades monarchs have lost an area of habitat about the size of Texas.
Climate change also threatens to erase the monarch. Just as Joshua Tree National Park is becoming unsuitable for Joshua trees, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is expected to become climatically unsuitable for monarchs, which need stable weather conditions to survive the winter. Large portions of the monarch’s U.S. summer breeding grounds are predicted to become too hot for caterpillars to survive. Severe summer and winter storms kill large numbers of monarchs. Back in 2002 a single winter storm killed an estimated 500 million monarchs — 14 times the size of the entire current population.
The steep population drop-off coupled with ongoing habitat destruction and the rapidly escalating pressures from climate change place the butterflies at ever-increasing risk of extinction. To make sure that doesn’t happen, the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Xerces Society, and renowned monarch scientist Lincoln Brower recently petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the monarch as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.
The act is intended to protect species and the habitat they need to survive before they are pushed to the very brink of extinction. That time for monarchs is now.
The monarch’s decline, and the decline of bees, frogs, bats, mollusks and even lightning bugs, is a wakeup call that we are paving and spraying our way to a lonely, less interesting, and dangerously less diverse planet.
We must protect the monarch now, while there is still hope of saving it. In the process, we must take a hard look at the agricultural and development practices that have put the great migration and this enduring symbol of childhood summers at such great and unnecessary risk.
Curry is based in Portland, Org., as a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. She can be reached at email@example.com