A recent designation of the monarch butterfly as “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had monarch aficionados’ heads spinning last week.

The organization, composed of government agencies and NGOs from around the world, issued a press release July 21 adding the monarch butterfly to its Red List of Threatened Species, citing habitat destruction and climate change.

And yet in May, news broke that the eastern migratory monarch population enjoyed a 35% increase this year over last. In January, conservationists announced that the number of California’s  monarchs, which move up and down the Pacific Coast, vaulted more than 12,000% in 2021. Given such robust monarch numbers over the past two years, the IUCN “endangered” designation came as a surprise.

“Can we still tag monarchs?” wondered Drake White, chief docent for San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival.

White oversees a team of trained docents that conduct one-on-one tagging demos at the celebration that takes flight each October in the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so named by the National Wildlife Federation.

The short answer is YES, we can still tag monarch butterflies.

While the Geneva-based IUCN is considered one of the most comprehensive sources on the conservation status of animals, plants and fungi, it has zero jurisdiction nor governing authority.

“The term ‘endangered’ captures people’s attention, but it doesn’t mean what people think it does,” said Ross Winton, an invertebrate biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Winton recalled the decision in 2020 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife on listing monarch butterflies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The federal agency determined the listing was “warranted but precluded” but failed to list them due to a lack of resources to protect them, moving them into the queue behind 161 other species. The issue is expected to be revisited in 2024.

The iconic orange-and-black butterflies are widely known for their unique, multi-generation migration that takes them each spring from their overwintering habitat in the mountains of Mexico through Texas to Canada and back.

San Antonio sits in the so-called Texas Funnel, a migratory pathway that sees large numbers of the insects each year. The Alamo City, like much of Texas, is also home to a fairly stable monarch butterfly population, according to Winton. Texas Parks and Wildlife recently conducted its own statewide monarch butterfly assessment.

“It came back that it’s secure, but that’s using different data sets than IUCN,” Winton said.

Monarch Joint Venture, a monarch butterfly conservation organization, clarified in a statement that the IUCN designation does not provide any protections or regulatory authority like an Endangered Species Act listing in the U.S. would.

The most recent population counts for migrating monarchs east of the Rockies shows a 35% increase over last year. –Graphic via Monarch Watch

“This is another loud call to action that we need all hands on deck for monarch and pollinator conservation,” said Wendy Caldwell, the organization’s executive director.

Another source of confusion: in their press release, the IUCN referred to the “eastern migratory monarch butterfly” as a “subspecies of the monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus.”

Scientists have debated if migrating and nonmigrating monarchs and those that live east or west of the Rocky Mountains have innately different DNA for years. A recent study, titled “Are eastern and western monarch butterflies distinct populations?” seems to have put that argument to rest.

As the study’s lead author Micah Freedman told the MonarchScience blog, “The evidence pretty strongly suggests that they (western monarchs) are genetically indistinguishable from eastern monarchs, and the (relatively minor) differences that do exist between wild eastern and western monarchs are likely environmentally determined.”

Andy Davis, author of the MonarchScience blog and editor of the Migration Studies Journal, went so far as to suggest that the IUCN listing was a PR stunt meant to fuel the dogma of doom surrounding monarchs. “The public ‘narrative’ around the monarch…is becoming more and more divorced from reality,” said Davis in a recent post about the listing.

In his own recent study, Davis makes compelling science-based arguments that the monarch butterfly itself is not endangered.

Drawing on butterfly survey data pulled from 130,000 observations over 25 years in two countries, he concludes that there’s been “no overall decline in numbers of monarchs seen in the past 25 years, going back to the mid 1990s. In fact, there was an overall positive trend of 1.3% per year. Over 25 years, that’s about a 30% increase!”

Read about the study here.

“It’s hard to sort it out,” said Cathy Downs, referring to the mixed messages.

Downs propagates milkweed, the monarch butterfly’s host plant, in her yard in Comfort in the Texas Hill Country. She also works as a monarch conservation specialist for Monarch Watch, a citizen science initiative based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence that tracks the monarchs’ migration each fall by tagging the creatures.

“I’m glad they issued the statement and brought monarch conservation back to the forefront,” she said.

The endangered designation by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature carries no authority over the tagging of monarch butterflies as an Endangered Species Act listing in the U.S. would. —Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the Endangered Species Act listing was being debated, those who tag monarch butterflies raised concerns that they would no longer be able to participate in the initiative to track the migrating insects via tiny stickers placed strategically on their wings, as the listing would likely prohibit such interactions with a protected species.

But that’s not a worry here, said Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch.

“The IUCN has absolutely no jurisdiction in the United States,” said Taylor. “It’s a wake-up call.”

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