The monarch butterfly population has been decreasing for three straight years. In fact, their numbers have declined significantly for six of the last seven years. But when they arrived at their Mexican winter refuge this year, their numbers had declined by a whopping 59%. Entomologists studying the monarch butterfly say that there are now only one-fifteenth as many monarchs today as there were in 1997. Are these beautiful creatures facing extinction? And if so, why?
Only a few years ago, black-and-gold Monarchs were common throughout the United States and Canada brightening gardens and entertaining children and adults. For many, Monarchs were seen as symbols of summer. Now they are a rare sight. Entomologists say that the Monarch population is at its lowest since records began to be kept 25 years ago.
The World Wildlfe Fund, which funds the annual Monarch census, says a major reason for the drop in population is probably the use of herbicides. Monarchs feed on milkweed, which is destroyed as a pest throughout Mexico, the United States and Canada. Other factors may include logging operations and the diversion of rivers and streams.
In February 2013, butterfly colonies wintering in the Mexican state of Michoacan were devastated by torrential rains and mudslides. Experts estimate that the area containing the trees butterfly colonies use as their winter quarters has dwindled from an estimated 22 acres (7.44 hectares) down to 2.9 acres (1.92 hectares). It is believed that as many as 50 million butterflies can inhabit a single hectare.
An organization called Monarch Watch is launching a campaign to encourage the planting or preservation of milkweed to help save the butterflies. They hope to bring about changes in roadside management, gardening and farming practices.
Other reasons cited by the experts include ecotourism, especially in their Mexican winter habitat, and illegal logging in an area especially set aside for the butterflies. A special reserve, called the Monarch Butterfly Special Biosphere Reserve was set up to protect the Monarchs in 1986. Logging is banned in the reserve, but trees are still being felled there without regard for the butterflies living in them. Researchers are also trying to discover whether this radical die-off may be part of the butterfles’ natural cycle.
No one can say whether the Monarchs can recover. One thing is certain, though. The world will be a poorer place if these beautiful little creatures go extinct.
For more information about this eco-crisis and how you can help, go here