The recent decline of the monarch butterfly has been “flying under the radar” so to speak, so I thought I’d bring you up to date. In the last two decades, the population of monarch butterflies that winter in Mexico has declined by 90% from its high in 1997. The decline is attributed to things such as unseasonably warm fall weather and severe hurricanes during the monarch migration, but most notably it is the loss of their spring and summer breeding habitat in the U.S. that is being blamed for the decline.
Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. In fact, the monarch is also known as the “milkweed butterfly.” Without the milkweed, there would be no monarch butterfly. The milkweed plant provides all the nourishment the monarch needs to transform the caterpillar into an adult butterfly.
These plants, however, are rapidly diminishing due to the loss of habitat stemming from land development, as well as the widespread use of weed killers and pesticides. The milkweed necessary for the monarch to complete its life cycle used to spring up between the rows of corn, soybeans and other commercial crops. Today, we do a better job of removing the unwanted plants from our fields, but in the meantime it also reduces the available habitat for the orange and black-winged pollinators.
As a result of this decline, in 2014 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. Based on the information in the petition, it was determined that federally protecting the monarch may be necessary, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would conduct a thorough assessment. A final decision on whether to protect the butterfly was due at the end of June but has been delayed 18 months until Dec. 15, 2020.
Listing the monarch for protection as an endangered species could have wide-ranging impacts for cooperatives across the Midwest. Activities such as vegetation management and infrastructure construction and maintenance could become highly regulated and expensive to complete.
In an effort to weigh in to the listing determination, co-ops across the country are implementing voluntary conservation measures. Some are even developing pollinator habitat gardens with milkweed and nectar plants around headquarters and solar farms and in rights-of-way.
America’s electric cooperatives take pride in being good environmental stewards of the land. For decades, co-ops have implemented voluntary projects to benefit “at risk” species and their habitats. In fact, collective voluntary efforts are what has resulted in some of the greatest conservation success stories, such as the delisting of the bald eagle as an endangered species.
I don’t think you’ll see your cooperative planting weed gardens anytime soon, but we will be following the progress of this decision very closely. When we evaluate our vegetation management practices, we will certainly look at the options for maintaining monarch habitat without adversely affecting our neighbors. In the meantime, if you hear about cooperatives across the country planting weeds, rest assured there is a good reason for it.