Many Americans were startled to learn recently that a butterfly once found in so many people’s backyards and fields is now being petitioned for federal listing as a threatened species. It will take months if not years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether the monarchs require this form of protection.
Rather than advocating for a particular outcome, I wish to focus on how any effective protection will need to positively engage both farmers and the rest of the food supply chain. I believe that real on-ground solutions to recovering the monarch’s habitat must build upon the best practices of the many farmers who already know how to manage on-farm habitats for monarchs and other pollinators.
First, remember that while monarchs have been found across an enormous variety of wild landscapes, they were once abundant in agricultural landscapes, too. Within the past 15 years, the best scientific estimate is that the breeding grounds for monarchs in the Midwest have lost one billion milkweeds, triggering a precipitous decline in monarchs. Last winter, the monarchs arriving from that area to overwinter in Mexico covered only the area of a football field, barely 3% of the area these migratory butterflies covered in 1997.
Some biologists contend that current monarch numbers remain far too high for them to be considered threatened, with an estimated 33 million monarchs left. While this is correct, monarchs in North America have undergone a 90% population decline over the past two decades. This steep decline suggests that some of their populations may remain on an extinction trajectory unless our land management practices do not make more room for monarchs. But they can, and they should, providing that farmers who make room for butterfly habitat on their land are given financial incentives and technical assistance to do so.
Business as usual is not likely to be sufficient; formerly widespread species — especially those that undergo a population collapse due to over-exploitation, disease or chemical contamination — have in factgone extinct. Once ubiquitous species — such as the passenger pigeon, Rocky Mountain locust, bison, chestnut and several species of fish — have been brought to the brink of extinction due to the effects of the plow and the ax, introduced livestock diseases, blight, damming and over-fishing. And America became poorer for it.
We must recognize an ecological principle applicable if we are to avert further declines of both monarchs and milkweeds: Species become more vulnerable to extinction with the combined stressors of rapid environmental changes, declining populations and disruption of specialized ecological relationships.
Applying this principle to monarchs, its numbers have fallen because of its specialized dependence on milkweeds for completing its life cycle and because untargeted use of chemicals such as glyphosate herbicides has eliminated an estimated 700 hundred million in croplands from American croplands in the past 15 years. No milkweeds, no monarchs. Chemical fragmentation of butterfly and bee habitats is just as real as their physical fragmentation or loss.
To recover the monarch butterfly, we need to restore the webs of ecological interactions in our farmscapes they require. We need to spread the burden for repairing the damage to plant-pollinator interactions across all sectors of the food supply chain, rather than placing it on farmers themselves. Many soy and corn growers are already financial at risk, in part due to the costs of an increasingly ineffective weed control package that is affecting farmers’ bottom lines.
Fortunately, some far-sighted agribusinesses are already stepping up to the plate, favoring voluntary proactive habitat recovery over litigation or regulation.
Innovative farmers already are, and will continue to be, essential to recovering monarch butterfly populations. Much of the milkweed restoration work that already has begun is within our nation’s farmscapes. I pray that a broad spectrum of participants across the entire food supply chain — from fertilizer and herbicide producers and distributors to restaurant owners and consumers — will begin to invest in farmers’ efforts to restore habitat for monarchs and other pollinators on private lands. Over half of America’s farmers are already engaged on improving wildlife habitat on their private lands, so we are simply asking that they further participate in the kinds of habitat improvement that focus more on butterflies and bees.
In short, Corn Belt farmers must be engaged and rewarded for playing a significant role in the recovery of this iconic insect. We hope that this challenge will encourage us to collectively move toward sustaining the health of our foodscapes, their own rural livelihoods and our nation’s long-term food security.
Gary Paul Nabhan of Patagonia, Ariz., is an orchard-keeper who co-founded Make Way for Monarchs, a milkweed-butterfly recovery alliance guided by farmers. He is also co-editor of the newly published “Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes.”