In the vast, big-sky coastal marshes of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge south of Tallahassee, the air is thick with migrating monarch butterflies on certain fall days. Driving through, it’s impossible not to hit some, and when I do, I’m appalled that I’ve just exterminated an insect that may have flown over 1,000 miles to get here.
The Eastern monarch population flies south from as far as Canada and masses along the Gulf coast, clustering so thickly on salt bushes that my small daughter understandably called them “Butterfly Trees.” (Actually, she called butterflies “flutter-bys,” which makes a lot more sense if you think about it.)
At the coast, the Eastern Monarch flutter-bys gather, eat a bunch of nectar, and then set off across the Gulf to spend the winter in a specific Mexican forest, millions of them covering the trees in one of the world’s most notable natural spectacles. In that particular micro-climate, they chill out for months. They mate.
In spring, they fly back across the Gulf of Mexico to America and lay eggs. Successive generations are born along the way back up North America in stages, with some monarchs dying, some laying eggs, and so on.
When they get to the end of their northward journey in late summer/early fall, a supercharged generation is born – these monarchs live as long as nine months, instead of the usual two to five weeks. These are the super butterflies that take the long journey south to Mexico. (One caveat: In southern Florida, there are monarchs that don’t make the Mexico journey.)
So you know what’s coming, right? News that the monarchs, like so many wild species, are in trouble. They are.
But today, let’s talk about more than that. Let’s talk about one controversial approach humans are considering to improve the monarch’s odds.
It’s a proposed partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and energy, transmission, and transportation companies as well as state departments of transportation. Private and non-federal landowners would sign agreements to voluntarily improve habitat for migrating monarchs on miles of rights-of-way along roads, railroad tracks, electric lines, and pipelines.
In return for the voluntary measures, the landowners who sign the agreements (which are proposed to last 50 years) wouldn’t face penalties or restrictions for harming monarchs if the butterflies do end up on the endangered species list. The agreement was spearheaded by a group of industries including gas and electric transmission and the rail and road industries, facilitated by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center.
One of the biggest problems facing monarchs is that they depend on a specific family of plants – milkweed – for their survival. Researchers say monarchs taste bad when they eat milkweed, and that protects them. When birds or other predators taste the pretty butterflies or striped caterpillars, they learn to associate the nasty flavor with the color pattern and avoid them.
The supply of that critical milkweed across the monarch’s migration route is impacted by herbicides, pesticides, and the fact that large natural areas are converted to agriculture.
For decades, volunteers have been planting milkweed to give the monarchs something to eat in back yards, school gardens and parks. In the proposed new rights of way agreement, there’s a host of possible actions landowners are supposed to take to help monarchs, including minimizing herbicide and pesticide spraying, making changes to how and when areas get mowed, and altering livestock grazing schedules.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t approved the agreement yet, and it has some loopholes that concern conservationists and scientists. For example, it wouldn’t happen on all rights of way, and a landowner could have a 50-year-long Endangered Species Act get-out-of-jail free card for one land parcel, and meanwhile own another adjacent parcel where herbicides and pesticides are still sprayed, imperiling monarchs.
The Center for Biological Diversity is one of the groups which petitioned for monarch Endangered Species Act protection in 2014. When the new rights-of-way proposal came out, the group sent in formal comments asking for changes to the proposal, including shortening the landowner agreements to 20 years and adding some stronger protections.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still studying whether the monarchs warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The deadline was extended to Dec. 15, 2020 – a full six years after the groups petitioned for a threatened species listing.
Critics of wildlife protections will often complain about how much money and time the government spends saving one little species like a butterfly. When I hear their carping, I think about a great quote written by the late Aldo Leopold, a scientist, college professor, and author in the early and mid 1900s who some call the father of wildlife ecology in the U.S:
“If the land mechanism as a whole is good,” he wrote, “then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Here’s another thing Leopold predicted: “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”