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Groups plan to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the monarch butterfly

Jan 7, 2016

This week, two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety, put the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on notice.

They’re planning to sue the agency because they say it’s dragging its feet on protecting the monarch butterfly.

Tierra Curry is a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity and she notes there’s been a big drop in the monarch’s population: 82% over the past two decades.

Monarchs are vulnerable because they need milkweed to survive.

“The biggest threats are pesticide use in the United States that’s causing milkweed to decline and then logging in their Mexican overwintering grounds,” Curry says.

Curry says monarchs have been doing better the past few years (last winter's estimate puts their numbers at 56.5 million), but they’re still a long way from where they were in the 1990s (an estimated one billion butterflies).

From the Center for Biological Diversity:

The population is expected to undergo a sizable rebound this winter due to favorable spring and summer weather, but monarchs need a very large population size to be resilient to threats from severe weather events. A single winter storm in 2002 killed an estimated 500 million monarchs — eight times the size of the entire current population. Severe weather is expected to take a toll on the population later this winter due to the strong El Niño this year.

Why they're suing

In 2014, both environmental groups petitioned the agency to list the butterfly as threatened. That could mean more money to protect their habitat.

"Sometimes species wait a really long time, up to 20 years, and so we want them to go ahead and make a decision on the monarch. And that's why we filed the notice of intent to sue," Tierra Curry says.

“When you petition for a species, when a citizen petitions for Endangered Species Act protection for a species, the Service is supposed to decide within 12 months,” Curry says.

But she says the agency is now more than a year late with that decision.

“And sometimes species wait a really long time, up to 20 years, and so we want them to go ahead and make a decision on the monarch,” she says. “And that’s why we filed the notice of intent to sue.”

A major backlog

Georgia Parham is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says the agency hasn't started the status review for the monarch yet.

“We haven’t established a schedule yet for addressing this and other backlogged petitions,” she says. “So we don’t have a firm or projected date for the 12-month finding for the monarch.”

But Parham says the USFWS is concerned about the butterfly, and they're taking action in the meantime.

“We are engaged in quite a few international conservation efforts to protect and restore monarch habitat throughout the country,” she says.

The hope is that these efforts will help the species enough that listing it under the Endangered Species Act won’t be necessary, Parham says.

She says the agency does see the dramatic drop in the monarch's numbers as worrisome.

Some pesticides kill milkweed, the primary food for monarchs.
Credit Flickr user Teddy Llovet/Flickr

“That is a cause of concern and it’s one of the triggers that we’ve used to engage with partners to try to implement conservation measures throughout the range of the monarch,” she says.

That typically involves planting milkweed.

“Monarchs depend on milkweed,” Parham says. “It’s a really simple, easy thing that almost anyone can do that will have a pretty positive effect for monarchs.”

The other backlogged species

Parham says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses a “candidate list” of species.

“These are species that we have determined should be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act and we update that list every year,” she says.

But there are a lot of plants and animals waiting in line.

“In addition to that, we have about 500 species that we’ve been petitioned to list, including the monarch, where we have to get to the point to determine whether or not they should be a candidate species and whether we should propose them for listing,” Parham says.

She says limited resources slow this process down.

“We have to make sure we’re focusing our resources on the species that need the help immediately, and address those concerns first,” she says.

One thing that's important to note: if you do want to plant milkweed in your yard, you should check to make sure those plants haven't been treated with pesticides called neonicitinoids. Plants that are treated can kill monarch caterpillars.