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The monarch butterfly fluttered a step closer to extinction last Thursday, as scientists put the iconic orange-and-black insect on the endangered list because of its fast dwindling numbers.
“It’s just a devastating decline,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who was not involved in the new listing. “This is one of the most recognizable butterflies in the world.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the migrating monarch butterfly for the first time to its “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as "endangered" — two steps from extinct.
The group estimates that the population of monarch butterflies in North America has declined between 22 percent and 72 percent over 10 years, depending on the measurement method.
The United States has not listed monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act, but several environmental groups believe it should be listed.
Clark McLeod, co-founder and CEO of the Marion-based Monarch Research Project, said the removal of native plants and trees, as well as increased human activity have decreased the habitat that monarchs and other insects need to survive.
The Monarch Research Project is working with area organizations and landowners to restore native Iowa trees and create a “playbook” for communities to foster landscapes that will flatten the monarch population’s downward trend.
McLeod said he thinks people are upset about the monarch’s endangered status because the insects are beautiful and familiar. But they aren’t the only butterflies facing an uncertain future.
“Most of the other butterflies, [people] don't know the name of [them],” McLeod said. “However, there are a number of butterflies in the same kind of situation, because we've been removing habitat.”
Emma Pelton of the nonprofit Xerces Society, which monitors western butterflies, said monarch butterflies are imperiled by loss of habitat and increased use of herbicides and pesticides for agriculture, as well as climate change.
“There are things people can do to help,” she said, including planting milkweed, a plant that the caterpillars depend upon.
The Monarch Research Project is also working to boost monarch numbers by creating enclosures that help protect the butterflies’ eggs from predators. The project helps grow the insect population and teaches the community about the native habitat problem. McLeod said there are about 150 enclosures in Linn County.
The project also encourages the release of monarch butterflies in areas where there’s a high native plant population.
“We put 1,000 acres of public ground into native habitat for the monarch and for a whole bunch of other insects,” McLeod said. “We have also planted 1,000 miles of Linn County roads with little mini prairies that are many prairies of native plants, because we have almost no native plants in our roadside ditches.”
Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at Michigan State University who was not directly involved in the endangered listing, estimates that the population of monarch butterflies he studies in the eastern United States has declined between 85 percent and 95 percent since the 1990s.
In North America, millions of monarch butterflies undertake the longest migration of any insect species known to science.
After wintering in the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies migrate to the north, breeding multiple generations along the way for thousands of miles. The offspring that reach southern Canada then begin the trip back to Mexico at the end of summer.
“It’s a true spectacle and incites such awe,” said Anna Walker, a conservation biologist at New Mexico BioPark Society, who was involved in determining the new listing.
A smaller group spends winters in coastal California, then disperses in spring and summer across several states west of the Rocky Mountains. This population has seen an even more precipitous decline than the eastern monarchs, although there was a small bounce back last winter.
While action to save the monarch butterfly is important, McLeod said so is education.
“Before you can do anything with the environment, you have to do something with education of the people who control the environment, and those are landowners,“ McLeod said.
Gazette reporter Hannah Pinski contributed to this report.