Monarch butterflies move to “red list”, endangered, say conservationists

Photo courtesy of Don Davis

Summer may be a little less bright this year. Last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved the migratory monarch butterfly to its “red list” of threatened species. Now endangered, the bright orange butterfly’s population has been battling habitat loss and climate change for decades.

This “endangered” classification puts monarchs just two steps from extinction, renewing the already high alert for the butterfly’s wellbeing. 

While the new report and label does not directly impact conservation law, it can inspire people to “take a look at monarchs—and other insects—and do more to conserve and protect them,” says Don Davis, who has been tagging, tracking, and observing monarch butterflies between Canada and Mexico since the 60s.

“Right now, this planet is in pretty rough shape. Species are on the decline,” says Davis, who personally has not seen many monarchs this year.“We had a cool, damp spring,” he explains.

Climate change, including droughts and extreme weather, is a huge factor, Davis says. Other threats, he notes, are “extensive” herbicide and pesticide use as well as land use changes, especially around Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Ontario, “which are important monarch migration paths.”

Couple that with modified plant species and degrading overwintering forests in Mexico, many factors are affecting the monarch’s ability to feed and reproduce peacefully.

“We’re planting more and more nonnative plants,” Davis says. The relationships between native plants and insects have developed over millennia and rapidly changing the ecosystem with nonnative flora is nearly impossible for native species to adapt to. 

“Our ecosystems are changing very quickly, breaking down, and not working as effectively as they once did,” he says.

The IUCN designation implores Canada, Mexico, and the United States to revisit their individual (national and regional) species at risk lists. In 2016, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended classifying monarch butterflies endangered, but in the U.S. monarchs await inclusion on the respective list.

How to help monarch butterflies survive

The great migration

Every summer, millions of monarch butterflies paint the sky orange as they migrate from the tropical forests of Mexico, through the United States, to Canada to breed and feed. The 3,000-kilometre commute is impressive but risky for the fluttering insects. The migration opens them up to threats from across the continent, from severe storms and droughts, to illegal logging and various pesticides. “Hundreds of thousands die along the way,” Davis says. “It’s a precarious journey.”

It’s important to look at monarch populations in terms of their wintering population, Davis explains. To maintain monarch numbers, we need to have a population of about six hectares of forest cover. (Often, monarch butterfly numbers are assessed in terms of how much area they cover.) “We have a long way to go to stabilize that migration population,” he says.

In Canada, specifically in southern and eastern Ontario, expect to see monarchs migrating from mid-August to mid-September. Their key routes are around the Great Lakes where there are flowering plants and large clover fields.

If you’re in the Toronto area, at Tommy Thompson Park (or the Leslie Spit) you can find monarchs treating themselves to the goldenrod fields. “It’s an amazing phenomenon,” Davis says. “You have to be there when they cluster in the fall. It’s pretty spectacular to see.”

How should we help?

Positive change is possible, Davis says, “but a lot of work has to be done.”

To start, “don’t mow just to mow,” he says. Correct management of private lands, crown lands, and municipal lands play an important role in preserving butterfly and other insects’ habitat and food sources. Besides monarchs, he says, “I’m finding very few species of other butterflies this year,” mentioning a lack of red admirals, viceroys and swallowtails in eastern Ontario. He mentions a drop in bee sightings too. 

Davis suggests and applauds homeowners and cottagers planting pollinator gardens that include goldenrod, milkweed—a monarch favourite—and other native flowering plants.

“When you benefit monarchs, you’re benefitting many other species,” he says.

He also suggests sharing with your kids, if you have them, and other people around you. “Study monarchs. Raise a few with your children,” he says. Exploring and reading are powerful ways to spark interest and raise awareness for butterflies. “I’ve always had an interest in nature,” says Davis, who grew up in rural Ontario around a family of farmers and developed an interest in nature at a young age.

Citizen science is vital and easy with apps like Journey North or iNaturalist. “Record sightings,” he says. “Teach others what you know. Donate to organizations that promote monarch conservation.” Davis is the chair of the U.S.-based Monarch Butterfly Fund

“There’s lots that people can do to contribute to improving the state of our planet,” Davis says. “Whether we’ll turn things around or not, we simply don’t know. But we’re gonna give it a good try.”

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