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Monarch butterfly lands on international endangered species list

Once abundant butterfly, now imperiled, faces extinction

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About 250 monarch butterflies are released at the Utah State Fair in Salt Lake City in 2014.

About 250 monarch butterflies are released at the Utah State Fair in Salt Lake City on Sept. 13, 2014. The well-known butterfly is now on the endangered species list.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The iconic and much beloved orange and black Monarch butterfly was added to the “red list” or classified as endangered on Thursday by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Scientists say its population has declined by as much as 84% from 1996 and 2021.

Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who was not involved in the new endangered listing, called the news devastating, according to a report by NPR.

Why it matters: Monarch butterflies are pollinators, key to plant life. But they need milkweed to thrive and milkweed is typically viewed as a nuisance by both residential households and farmers.

Lincoln Brower, a leading entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, wrote that “the migration is definitely proving to be an endangered biological phenomenon.”

“The main culprit is now GMO herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops and herbicides in the USA,” which “leads to the wholesale killing of the monarch’s principal food plant, common milkweed,” Brower wrote in an email reported by The Associated Press.

According to The Nature Conservancy, Monarch butterflies are the only species of butterfly to make a two-way migration, often flying up to 100 miles a day.

“The butterflies that embark on a 3,000-mile southbound journey were born in the United States and have never been to Mexico. And yet, they are driven by environmental factors to glide south until they reach the oyamel fir forests of Mexico, mainly in Michoacán,” the conservancy said.

Challenges for the species: Drought, loss of habitat and pesticides are destroying the population of the Monarch butterfly and conservationists and scientists have been stumped for years on how to halt their decline.

In 2016, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District released 500 Monarch butterflies from its conservation garden, much to the delight of crowds.

Utah is on the migratory pathway of the Monarch butterfly and a coalition of state agencies and other groups formed the Western Monarch Conservation Plan, which in part encourages people to plant milkweed as a food source for the butterfly.

According to the division, the population in Utah and the West has declined from over a million monarchs in the late 1990s to just 200,000 in recent years based on overwintering counts of adult monarch butterflies in California by the Xerces Society — a science-based nonprofit which works to preserve insects and their habitat.