Endangered Species Act Petition: Wrong Tool for Monarch Butterfly Conservation?

As Monarch butterflies finished their tardy, impressive sweep through Texas in early November demonstrating a 2014 population rebound, those in the Monarch community debated the wisdom of listing the iconic migrating butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

If the Monarch butterfly were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, you could only harvest 10 from your own yard each year. Photo by Veronica Prida

In late August, the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior requesting the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the ESA.

This year’s seemingly healthy population, predicted by experts to be two, perhaps three times as large as last year’s record low, is a welcome turnaround from the post-2010 decline associated with the prolonged Texas drought and other challenges to the migration. The rebound has created a bit of a disconnect, arriving the same year as the petition to consider the iconic migrants’ threatened status.

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use. The ecosystem that supports the Monarch butterfly migration–and pollinator habitat in general–is tattered.  Dr. Chip Taylor stated it well in a recent blog post: “Monarchs clearly aren’t endangered. As this discussion proceeds, we need to make it clear in all communications that it’s about the migration and not the species per se.”

Agreed.

So, is petitioning the federal government to list our favorite butterfly as “threatened” the best way to accomplish that goal?  After giving it much thought, I think not.

Threatened status might motivate large corporations and government agencies to be more considerate of Monarchs and other pollinators, but for private citizens with no government or scientific affiliation, such status could be counter productive.

Monarch cateripllars

Not in your backyard: if ESA threatened status is applied to Monarchs, each household will be allowed to raise only 10 Monarchs per year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As one who enjoys Monarchs visiting my urban garden eight months of the year and roosting along the Llano River in the fall, I take particular issue with the federal government telling me what I can do with my land.

Milkweed and nectar plants fill my San Antonio pollinator gardens.   We’ve also undertaken a riparian restoration in the Texas Hill Country where Monarchs roost each year, an effort that includes planting native milkweeds and other nectar plants along our riverbanks along the Llano River.

In the course of any given year, I raise several hundred butterflies, not just Monarchs, for fun, joy, and to give as gifts. My goal is to inspire appreciation and understanding of our outdoor world and reinforce the majesty of nature in a small, everyday way.

According to the 159-page petition’s final line,  if “threatened” status is approved, such activities would be a crime.  People like me and you will be allowed to raise “fewer than ten Monarchs per year by any individual, household or educational entity”–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

This seems to strike at the very heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic and widely embraced–the crowdsourcing of understanding its migration and the groundswell of interest in conserving it.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Citizen scientists and individuals like Catalina Trail were instrumental in the discovery of the Monarch roosting spots in 1976.  File photo.

Let’s not forget that regular folks like us helped piece together the puzzle of the Monarch migration back in 1976 through Dr. Fred Urquhart’s monitoring project and the intrepid explorations of individuals like Catalina Trail, the first person to chance up on the roosts in Michoacán.  Making lawbreakers of regular folks for participating and reserving that privilege only for scientists would do more harm than good.

If milkweed becomes part of critical habitat as defined by the ESA under this petition, that would mean destroying milkweed–or getting caught destroying it–would become a crime punishable by fines or mitigation.   Civil penalties can come to $25,000 per ESA violation and criminal fines up to $100,000 per violation, and/or imprisonment for up to one year.

Many landowners will simply not plant milkweed or will do away with it entirely just to avoid problems.  In some parts of the universe, this is known as Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up, the “practice of killing and burying evidence of any plants or animals that might be threatened or endangered.”   We have seen this attitude first hand in Texas.  Ranchers have been known to destroy first growth Ashe Juniper to preserve grass lands and conserve water to avoid ramifications of disturbing the preferred habitat of the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler.

Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is cited as the enforcement agent for these rules– but how likely is it that agency personnel will have the bandwidth to do so? If enforcement is not practical, what is the point of the rule?

The petitioners take special issue with the commercial butterfly breeding industry, which supplies eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and live butterflies for schools, nature exhibits, conservation activities and events. The petition specifically details how conservation education activities like the rearing of Monarchs in school classrooms or at nature centers will be immune to regulation, “provided that the Monarchs are not provided by commercial suppliers.”

That means if a teacher in a classroom or home school situation in New York City wants to teach metamorphosis to fifth graders using Monarch butterflies, she can only do that with  butterflies personally harvested in the Big Apple. The best intentions often lead to unintended consequences, and that is what I fear in this instance.

“If only wild caterpillars can be collected and brought into the classroom, we will run the risk of excluding urban children…. precisely what we don’t want,” Dr. David Wagner, author of the guide to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, Dr. Felix Sperling of the University of Alberta and Dr. Bruce Walsh, of the University of Arizona, co-wrote in a 2010 article in the News of the Lepidopterist’s Society.

Again, this seems like a case where federal regulation will do more harm than good since the children that most benefit from the tactile experience of raising butterflies are often those living in urban settings with limited access to nature.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Limiting access to butterflies in the classroom to those found only in the wild will severely restrict access to Monarchs by urban children (who most need it), some scientists say.   Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

One of the most contentious issues in the petition is a claim on page 74 that “millions” of Monarch butterflies are released into the environment by commercial butterfly breeders each year.

The claim appears greatly exaggerated to the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), which challenged the number in a press release headlined, “Number of Monarch Butterflies Released Annually Closer to 32,000 than ‘millions and millions’ as Claimed by Endangered Species Act Petitioners.”

[DISCLOSURE:  I serve on the board of the International Butterfly Breeders Association but do not raise butterflies commercially.  I also am a member of the Xerces Society and have hosted both Dr. Chip Taylor and Dr. Lincoln Brower at our ranch.]

The IBBA challenged the basis for such a claim, noting that the “millions and millions” citation was, in fact, lifted from a single newspaper op-ed piece published eight years ago.  The author, Professor Jeffrey Lockwood, University of Wyoming, acknowledged the number was guesswork.

“That such an unverified claim surfaced in a formal petition before the Secretary of the Interior demonstrates a serious failure in documentation at best,” Kathy Marshburn, IBBA president, said in the press release.

Dr. Tracy Villareal, an IBBA board member, oceanographer, and part owner of Big Tree Butterflies butterfly farm in Rockport, Texas, called the claim “misleading and poor scholarship.” Villareal told me by phone that he would grade such secondhand references unacceptable in a graduate student’s dissertation.

“The authors made no attempt to determine the composition of the 11 million–how many of each species, for example. Nor did they attempt to contact the author to determine how he arrived at this number.  It took me about four hours from my initial email to Professor Lockwood to find out how it was done.”  Read the IBBA’s challenge to the numbers for yourself.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores can be debilitating for Monarch butterflies.   Concerns about infecting the wild population with the nasty spore persist, and studies continue.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it. In particular, the unpronounceable Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses special concern since it debilitates the butterflies and appears to thrive in conditions where the creatures congregate en masse, are crowded, and/or where milkweeds overwinter, carrying the spores into the next season.

Yet, scientists agree that OE is present in the wild population, too, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Only when health or conditions are degraded does the disease overtake the butterflies. The science is still uncertain on this.  Studies continue.

Like any industry, commercial butterfly breeding attracts good citizens and bad, but it seems highly unlikely that people who gravitated to the challenging task of breeding butterflies for a living would intentionally release damaged goods into nature. That just makes for bad business. Does the industry need better checks and balances on the health of livestock released into nature?  Absolutely.

The IBBA, an international organization of 104 breeders, plans to release new counts for the number of butterflies released annually at its conference that begins November 12 in Ft. Lauderdale. The organization also will host a discussion on changing or increasing self-policing practices of its membership to keep livestock as disease-free as possible.  As Villareal said in a recent email exchange on the DPLEX list, a listserv frequented by hundreds of folks in the Monarch community, “Working from clean breeders is a critical first step in production. I repeat this for everybody in the back row. CLEAN BREEDERS ARE CRITICAL.”

The ESA petition has created conflict in the small-but-passionate world of butterfly advocates.  A far better use of the community’s time and energy could be spent on initiatives and public education campaigns to restore migratory habitat.

It’s already happening in many ways, through government and small-but-significant public- private partnerships.

In June, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum calling for all federal agencies to “substantially expand pollinator habitat on federal lands, and to build on federal efforts with public-private partnerships.”  Pollinator Week Proclamations have been declared in 45 states, recognizing the vital services that pollinators provide.  The EPA released guidance to help scientists assess the potential risks various pesticides pose to bees, and the USDA announced an $8 million initiative to provide funding to farmers and ranchers who establish new pollinator habitats on agricultural lands as part of its Conservation Reserve Program.

Hardberger Park Land bridge

Yes, please.  Hardberger Park land bridge would facilitate safe movement of wildlife–including pollinators. Photo via Rivard Report

Here in my hometown, we are working with the leadership of San Antonio’s Hemisfair Area Redevelopment Corporation to include pollinator habitat in their upcoming reimagination of the historic 65-acre downtown park that was home to the city’s 1968 world’s fair. Our local public utility, CPS Energy, recently supported the installation of a pollinator garden right downtown at their headquarters on the San Antonio River Walk.   And on our city’s heavily developed northwest quadrant, Hardberger Park has a dedicated butterfly garden. The park conservancy is raising money for a spectacular land bridge that will facilitate safe movement of pollinators and other wildlife.

Let’s focus on individual actions and crafting effective public-private partnerships that raise awareness, plant more milkweed and nectar plants and make rebounds like 2014 common fare–and keep the federal government out of our yards.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Thanks, Climate Change! 9.5-inch Llano River Rain Dump Exemplifies Extreme Weather

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

On the Llano River: the picnic spot kayak rock May 16, 2014.  As of this date, only five inches of rain had fallen on the ranch in all of 2014.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Everything I need to know about climate change I can learn from the the picnic spot kayak rock on our Llano River ranch pictured above.

The rock is our family’s “riverometer.”   It tells us how the river is faring.  Is it up?  Down? Is the current running swiftly or creeping slow?

Each visit to the ranch begins with a trek down to the picnic spot to check the kayak rock, where we put our kayaks in the water, launch our river adventures, begin our wading outings and fishing fun.    When the river is down, which it has been in recent years, we can even traverse almost the entire karst riddled river bottom without getting our shorts wet.   That’s a sad day.

Last weekend, like many of you, I was very much looking forward to a three-day Memorial Day weekend.   As is our custom, my family set out for the Texas Hill Country.   Memorial Day weekend generally means  the kick-off of summer with clusters of agarita berries, excellent bird and butterfly watching, fishing for bass and gar, and the first swim of the season.

But not this year. Just like other creatures that have had their schedules rearranged by “extreme weather events” the outing we had planned didn’t happen. We had to literally go with the flow–of the river, that is.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock May 23, 7:38 PM, after five inches of rain in 60 minutes.   And more on the way.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

En route to our weekend late Friday afternoon, we encountered a massive storm that dumped five inches of rain on the Texas Hill Country in 60 minutes.   That’s more rain than our ranch has seen in all of 2014 until now.

Living in San Antonio’s “flash flood alley,” which sits on thin soils and lots of limestone,  we’re accustomed to rainstorms turning our streets into high water crossings.  But this rain event was monumental.

Water blocked Highway 385 around 6 PM on Friday night, and surrounding fields looked like fresh tanks with water standing under oak and pine trees. And then the sun came out.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock on May 24, 2:43 PM, water has receded a bit. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock May 25, 2014, 8:52 AM. Another two inches of rain later.

 

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock, May 26, 9:56 AM, after two-and-a-half more inches of rain, for a total of nine-and-a-half inches. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The rain surge continued on and off all weekend–then into the week. By Monday morning, we had 9.5 inches of rain in the rain gauge. That’s a blessing, of course, in the context of historic drought. But it sure would be preferable if we could have it in smaller, more manageable doses.

Unfortunately, that’s not likely.  The predictable, manageable cycles of the past have been thrown into jeopardy with global climate change. As laid out in the recently released White House Global Climate Assessment Report earlier this month, “extreme weather events” like that of last weekend will become increasingly common.

Imagine you are an insect or crawfish that lives on or near the picnic spot kayak rock. One minute you’d be scrounging for sustenance in high salinity water with low oxygen levels, the next scrambling to survive as waves of run-off and debris literally rearrange your world. You’d really have to be flexible and have the ability to adapt to extremes to survive.

As written here previously, unpredictable and extreme weather will constitute the new normal for us. The third National Climate Assessment report suggests Texas will continue to face severe shortages of ground and surface water. Floods caused by extreme rain events will interrupt the ongoing drought. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms will become more common.   And wildfires will punctuate our summers.

Science tells us this is a period of rapid climate change like no other. Organisms that can adapt, will survive, and with luck, thrive.

Rain dump means road repairs needed

Good news: it rained buckets. Bad news: road repairs needed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As we assessed the damage to our roads following last weekend’s deluge, it’s clear some expensive road work is in our future.    We’ll adapt.    And, we’ll keep in mind that while we can always rebuild the road, only Nature can restore the river.

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Illegal Logging “Stopped,” but Climate Change, Aerial Insecticides Spell Challenges for Monarch Butterflies

Good news from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in the mountains of Michoacan this week: for the first time since the creation of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve in 2000, officials declared that illegal logging there has practically been eliminated.

Logging

Illegal logging in Mexico has practically been eliminated, says the World Wildlife Fund, Mexico

Mexican government officials and the World Wildlife Fund, Mexico, made the announcement after a review of aerial photographs of the Oyamel forests in Michoacan province this week revealed no detectable loss of forest to logging.  Approximately 50 acres fell victim to drought, erosion and disease.

“The battle is not yet won,” Omar Vidal of the environmental group WWF Mexico, told the Associated Press in a widely circulated report.

Unfortunately the good news in Mexico was tempered with the harsh reality that 2012 will be tough for the Monarch butterfly migration this fall.  A year “like no other,” according to Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch–and a year that includes climate change, drought, wildfires, and now massive aerial insecticides in the strategic North Texas migration flyway.

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico.

The year started with a wet spring that arrived strong and early, creating a timing snafu here in the “Texas funnel.” The Lone Star State is always the first stop on the multi-generation Monarch migration spring tour.  A sound launch here in April, based on mild temperatures and fresh, ample milkweed host plant, sets up a successful first generation of Monarch butterflies to lay eggs, hatch caterpillars and chrysalises, and carry the torch northward.

But that didn’t happen this year.  The Texas spring came on hot, early, and accompanied by strong winds.  When Monarchs arrived in March, a lot of wild milkweed wasn’t even out of the ground yet.    The wet, mild winter provoked a bountiful wildflower showing, creating serious competition from more aggressive species.

Then we had a slew of 80- and 90-degree days that sped up growth of both the caterpillars and plants.  Readers of this blog contacted us with tales of a serious milkweed shortage.  “Plants grew rapidly this spring with many species blooming 10-30 days earlier than normal,” wrote Taylor in his annual Monarch Population Status blogpost, published July 30.  “Plants that typically flower in the fall began blooming in June and reports continue of water stressed plants blooming early.”

Resident Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Milkweed shortages dogged Monarch butterflies this year.

That’s a problem because Monarch caterpillars prefer young, healthy plants rather than those that are over-the-hill and “senescing,” as scientists call it.  Studies of caterpillars reared on older, mature milkweed suggest less healthy butterflies, and problems like the OE virus and tachinid flies are more common.

Summer brought extreme heat and no rain, with the historic drought suffered in Texas last year now expanding to the Midwest–not good for butterflies and devastating for host and nectar plants.  Successive generations of Monarchs seem to having a tough time syncing their schedules with the new climate calendar and plants seem confused, too.

It will be an interesting migration.   We generally start to see the vanguard of migrating Monarchs in late August here in Texas.  By Labor Day, a dribble of early arrivals grace our goldenrod at the ranch.  On the way, they will have seen a torched landscape from wildfires in the Midwest and Oklahoma, and now, massive aerial insecticide sprays in Dallas, a response to an outbreak of West Nile virus there.

The aerial spraying of insecticides like Duet, the chemical dispersed last night over 106,00 acres of Dallas county, has not taken place since 1966.  The Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that Duet, comprised of synthetic pyrethenoids, are safe and pose no health risk to humans or pets.  Descriptions of the chemical provided by Clarke Corporation say the chemical is even safe for bees.

Scientists and citizens expressed reservations about aerial spraying.  The Dallas-area town of Lancaster even voted to not participate in the program.

Dr. John Abbott, Curator of the Entomology Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, questioned the effectiveness of such a measure.  “All this will do is knock out the adults that are flying, but it doesn’t do anything about the eggs and larvae,” he said.

“Aerial spraying will kill some, but not all adult mosquitoes, but it won’t solve the problem since the spraying will not impact the breeding sites,” said Dr. Taylor via email.   “Why aren’t they attacking the breeding sites?”

Dr. Mike Merchant, Professor and Extension Urban Entomologist at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Dallas, dismissed concerns of Duet effecting the Monarch migration.  “I wouldn’t anticipate that Duet would have much impact on Monarch migrations or survival, ” he said via email.  “The insecticide lasts for just a few hours before degradation or evaporation.”   Merchant added that since spraying is done at night, butterflies would be less likely to encounter it and that studies suggest these insecticides are less toxic to larger insects.

“That said, we are taking a wait and see approach,” he wrote.

And that’s what we will do, as we await the first arrivals of this year’s Monarch migration.

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Wildflower Bonanza-to-be on the San Antonio Mission Reach, Thanks to Above-average Rains

Bluebonnets, coreoposis, red and blue sage–who knew it was February in San Antonio, Texas?   Recent Texas rains have drenched our drought-parched landscape, but Nature seems bent on making it up to us.

Bluebonnets are already blooming along the San Antonio Mission Reach

Bluebonnets are already blooming along the San Antonio Mission Reach

This pristine scene is not untouched nature in the wild, but the product of years of human intervention.   San Antonio’s Mission Reach, a landmark riparian restoration, is coming alive after millions of dollars and likely as many hours of complex collaboration among planners, engineers, specialist contractors, scientists, and technologists. As crowds flock to the Witte Museum’s must-see Darwin exhibit that opened  yesterday, a tandem visit to the Mission Reach serves as a lesson in  real-time evolution.

A recent walk on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, the nine-mile linear park that extends from the south part of downtown San Antonio all the easy to Mission Espada, revealed bounties of budding wildflowers, awaiting slightly warmer temperatures and doses of daily sunshine to put out full blooms.  After the 2011 historic drought, it’s heartening.   The butterflies will follow shortly, as will the birds who find their caterpillar life stage a favorite treat.   Not far behind are other returning critters–raccoons, opossums, nutria, even foxes and coyotes eventually.

For a quick preview of what’s coming later this spring, see the slideshow above.   For insights on the complex collaboration of planners, scientists, engineers and specialist contractors tapped to set the stage for these blooms, see my story at The Rivard Report.

Occupy Michoacan: Monarch Butterflies Move West Because of Deforestation and Climate Change

Monarch butterflies seem to have taken a cue from our Wall Street protesters and moved to more friendly environs for the winter.  The migrating insects, numbering in the millions, have moved slightly west in their roosting sanctuaries, from Mexico state to Michoacan, says a report in El Diario Michoacan.

Monarch butterflies in Michoacan

Monarch butterflies in Michoacan

“It appears the butterfly now prefers the forests of Michoacan to those in Mexcio,” stated a dispatch on the website of the daily publication based in Uruapan, the municipal seat for Michoacan province.

The article quoted Oscar Contreras Contreras of the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Foundation (Funacomm) who said climate change and human activity such as illegal logging have been causing changes in the butterflies arrival and departures dates and population size for the past five years.

El Diario quoted another source who said that in the La Mesa sanctuary, in the town of  San José del Rincón, the butterflies only stayed for two months “because now the conditions for their hibernation and protection no longer exist.”

The butterflies typically occupy 12 sanctuaries that straddle the mountains of the Southern Sierra Madre and Transvolcanic Belt in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Mexico.  Their whereabouts change from year-to-year, and they move within and between the sanctuaries before taking flight in February and March to begin their migration north.

But this year seems different.

Monarch watchers are predicting a dreadful count, as a result of drought and wildfires in Texas, general habitat loss throughout the country and tough conditions in Mexico–environmentally and economically.  The budding ecotourism industry built around the migration has been stopped in its tracks by narco violence, which has caused many tour operators to cease organizing Monarch butterfly watching tours for fears of safety.  It would be no surprise that local Michoacanos might return to illegal logging as a way to feed their families and warm their homes.

We await official reports on this year’s population status, usually made available in February or March.   Like the Occupy Wall Streeters here in the U.S., there’s no question the butterflies will return this spring–but in what numbers?

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