Researchers give the colorful insects a 72 percent chance of going extinct in the next two decades. courtesy Wikipedia

Monarch butterflies dying

Scientists warn of a possible extinction on the horizon for the insects.

Monarch butterflies are common sights at TU. However, catastrophic drops in the populations of these iconic insects are occurring all over the United States. Monarchs migrate to California and Mexico for the winter. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recorded an 86 percent decline in migration numbers for California in 2018. The Xerces Society expected lower numbers from an ideal season in their breeding and migration range, but the numbers were much worse than anticipated.

Volunteers counted the butterflies at sites that together cover 77 percent of the state. In 2017, there were over 148,000 monarchs, but 2018 saw only slightly more than 20,000. Xerces believes that habitat loss and pesticides are to blame, but California’s later-than-usual rainy season, wildfires and smoke could have contributed to the devastation in butterfly populations as well. As monarchs react to changes in temperature, climate change interferes with their migration patterns. With regions of the United States seeing warmer temperatures, they might not migrate as usual.

In the U.S. overall, there has been a 97 percent decrease in monarch population since the 1980s. Butterflies use milkweed for a food source and to lay their eggs, and this plant’s presence in the U.S. has decreased since 1995. Within 20 years, researchers believe that monarchs have a 72 percent chance of extinction.

News of plummeting monarch butterfly populations come at a time of crisis for wildlife across the globe in what some scientists call the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. World Wildlife Fund states that “the rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.” Scientists further warn about the implications that species loss has on humans, given that animals affect our ecosystems.

Bees, whose pollination assists in the growth of certain plants and food, have recently been added to the list of endangered species as well. This illustrates the impact that wildlife biodiversity has on humans. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University described it as such when he explained that “civilization depends utterly on the plants, animals and microorganisms of Earth that supply it with essential ecosystem services ranging from crop pollination and protection to supplying food.”

The U.S. federal government continues to propose legislation that would strip the Endangered Species Act of its powers. Such legislation includes allowing the Forest Service agency to use toxic pesticides. Darryl Fears of the Washington Post wrote that Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, proposed to remove the phrase “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination” from the Endangered Species Act. This would mean that economic impacts would be taken into consideration when creating measures for wildlife protection. For example, if the federal government were to plan to set aside land for wildlife, they might not do so if the land could be used for oil and gas drilling or mining.

2018 also saw the death of the last northern white rhino in Africa and the addition of tuna fish onto the list of animals vulnerable to extinction. Conservation efforts have gained traction around the world, but Ehrlich believes that the time for humans to act is short. Ehrlich cites wildlife reserves, diversity protection laws and slower growth of the worldwide human population as necessities to avoid the detrimental effects of the looming loss of species.

Post Author: Anna Robinson