Monarch Butterflies have begun their incredible 3,000 mile annual migration from Canada and the U.S. to Mexico.
The North American butterflies, known for their instantly-recognizable orange and black stripes, spend 3 months travelling south, most of them overwintering in the sanctuaries of the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. Millions of butterflies arrive there every year, and stay until March, when they commence their trip back north.
Their fascinating journey is especially newsworthy now, when considering the serious decline in their numbers since 1997, from 1 billion to 56.6 million. The sole habitats of these majestic butterflies are milkweed plants, which Monarch caterpillars feed on exclusively.
However, vast areas covered in these plants have been cleared by farmers and the surviving ones are frequently treated with harmful pesticides. Milkweed density has been dwindling especially due to the popularity of Round-up, a weed-killing herbicide whose main ingredient is glyphosate.
As a result, the number of monarch butterflies has plummeted by more than 90% in the last 20 years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is even taking into account the possibility of listing them as an endangered species.
Conservationists have been militating against the use of glyphosate as a pesticide, and in 2007 the Heart for Organic Range, a San Francisco-based group, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), accusing it of having violated the Endangered Species Act.
As a result, in June EPA representatives declared they would be dedicating 5 years to analyzing the effects of Roundup on more than 1,500 threatened species, including the monarch butterfly.
However, environmental advocates believe this is just a way for the agency to buy more time to assess the obvious detrimental effect of glyphosate, as it continues to approve other glyphosate-based pesticides that destroy the butterfly species’ habitat. Spending several years investigating a clearly precarious situation may aggravate it even further.
“The EPA apparently plans to study the monarch migration to extinction”, declared Dr. Sylvia Fallon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its Wildlife Conservation Mission.
In the meantime however, ordinary people can still make their contribution to the well-being and preservation of these butterflies, by restoring their natural habitats. According to National Fish & Wildlife Service representatives, milkweed gardens can be planted by anyone willing to assist in saving this species.
The Monarch Watch, a Kansas-based corporation, has made it its mission to facilitate communication between milkweed gardeners throughout the U.S. People can subscribe to the Monarch Waystation program and receive seed packages allowing them to develop their own monarch butterfly habitats.
Any effort from butterfly breeders is valuable, if it will result in protecting this species from an irreversible decline.
Image Source: Flickr