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Monarch Butterfly Listing

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Monarch Butterfly

Most all of you old-timers can probably recall that monarch butterflies dancing in the breeze was a common sight across North Dakota in your childhood. They are not so common these days. The western population is down over 90% since the 1980s while the eastern population is down 84% from 1996-2014.

Some of you may have missed it, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature recently listed the migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) as endangered on their Red List of Threatened Species. That is not a listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the Endangered Species Act. But it is interesting to note that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to add the monarch to the list of threatened and endangered species because resources are limited, and 161 species are of a higher priority.

Monarchs should produce at least two generations a summer. And as most everyone knows, milkweeds are the only plants on which they will lay their eggs and the only plants the caterpillars will eat. That means that the monarch’s breeding range is limited to the range of milkweeds. And although there are over one hundred milkweed species in North America, the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is perhaps the most important and most abundant milkweed species for monarchs. That is a problem, because the common milkweed is listed as a noxious week in many states and provinces.

The future of the monarch butterfly appears to be quite precarious. Although the wintering grounds in Mexico are officially protected, illegal logging is destroying the monarch’s habitat. Then, of course, the widespread use of herbicides, changes in land use, and a myriad of other factors are reducing milkweeds across much of the monarch’s summer breeding range.

That gives us lots to think about when we see monarchs fluttering around in the North Dakota breezes. They are already heading south for the winter. If they can dodge cars, predators, and a myriad of other threats, maybe they’ll complete the journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

As Anna Walker, Species Survival Officer for Invertebrate Pollinators, New Mexico BioPark Society stated: “It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse.”

Hopefully we can give the monarchs the help they need to recover, so future generations can enjoy watching those iconic orange butterflies dancing in the North Dakota breeze.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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