The beautiful monarch butterfly, which is also a major pollinator, is being threatened by herbicides that eradicate milkweed, its primary food source. Now, a desperate rejuvenation program is under way to save the species from possible extinction.
A shocking statistic released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday summed up the plight of the monarch butterfly: Since 1990, about 970 million of the butterflies – 90 percent of the total population – have vanished across the United States.
The massacre provides a grim testimony to the delicate balance that exists between man and nature, and how the introduction of a single consumer product – in this case, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide – can wreak so much havoc. Sold to farmers and homeowners as an effective method for eliminating milkweed plants, Roundup Ready, introduced in the 1970s, is widely blamed for decimating the monarch butterflies’ only source of food in the Midwest.
“This report is a wake-up call. This iconic species is on the verge of extinction because of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crop system,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, which last week released a report describing the effects of herbicide-resistant crops on monarch butterflies in North America.
“To let the monarch butterfly die out in order to allow Monsanto to sell its signature herbicide for a few more years is simply shameful.”
The widespread death of the monarch butterfly has prompted some groups, like the Center for Biological Diversity, to demand the butterfly be placed on the endangered species list.
Dan Ashe, director of Fish and Wildlife Service, preferred to take a diplomatic approach to Monsanto’s hefty contribution to the problem, saying everyone is responsible for the plight of the monarch butterfly.
“We’ve all been responsible. We are the consumers of agricultural products. I eat corn. American farmers are not the enemy. Can they be part of the solution? Yes,” Ashe said.
“It’s not about this wonderful, mystical creature. It’s about us.”
The monarch migrates annually thousands of miles – and over the lifespan of many generations – from Mexico, across the United States, to Canada. To complete this migration, the butterfly is dependent upon the milkweed plant, which provides not only a major food source, but a larval host. However, as US farmland continues to eat up the remaining wild places, there appears to be little left to sustain the monarch.
In an effort to restore monarch numbers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to start a milkweed replanting program.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will contribute $2 million this year to restoring more than 200,000 acres of monarch habitat, while also “supporting over 750 schoolyard habitats and pollinator gardens.” The service will also concentrate rejuvenation efforts on Interstate 35, a 1,568-mile (2,523 km) highway that extends from Texas to Minnesota, which closely follows the monarch’s migration path.
“We can save the monarch butterfly in North America, but only if we act quickly and together,” said Ashe.
The monarch butterfly is not the only pollinator species suffering from the agricultural use of pesticides. Wasps, beetles and especially honeybees have all experienced significant drops in their numbers over the years, which will have adverse effects on America’s crop supply if not soon addressed.