KU professor questions effort to list monarchs as threatened

Many advocates for endangered species cheered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement this week that it would take steps to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.

But at Kansas University, one of the country’s leading Monarch butterfly scientists and the founder of Monarch Watch was more circumspect about government involvement.

Chip Taylor, an insect ecologist at KU, said he fears a Pandora’s Box could be opened if the federal government steps in and tells property owners they need to conserve certain vegetation to provide the critical habitat for butterflies.

“Nobody wants the government to tell them what to do with their property,” Taylor said. “The real challenge is to get the message out and get the public involved. This really is the way to go.”

Taylor pointed to the controversy over the lesser prairie chicken that has been building over the past year. In March the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bird’s population has dropped 50 percent because of a loss of natural prairie grass habitat, scientists say.

Kansas and other states that were affected even before the listing was official have filed lawsuits. Kansas legislators filed a bill to prevent the federal government from regulating lesser prairie chickens in the state. U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp proposed slashing the Fish and Wildlife Service’s budget by 25 percent.

Taylor said a grassroots plan is needed to save the monarch.

“We need a ground-up sort of approach. … This can be solved by large-scale public participation,” he said.

In the past 20 years, the monarch’s numbers have declined from about 1 billion to 35 million because of severe habitat loss, scientists say.

Monarchs winter on 12 mountaintops in central Mexico, then journey thousands of miles to the United States and Canada, according to the Monarch Butterfly Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Once the butterflies arrive here, they mate and lay eggs on milkweed and feed on the plant. The monarch’s lifespan is only about a month. About three generations will pass in one summer. In late August, the newest adults will forgo mating and laying eggs to fly back to Mexico.

One of the reasons for the loss of milkweed, scientists say, is a large increase in the use of herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup, a University of Minnesota study found.

Farmers are planting more genetically engineered crops, corn and soybeans that are resistant to Roundup, so government records show more of the herbicide is being used, and more milkweed is being killed, the study said.

It’s estimated that 165 million acres of habitat for the monarch has been lost, an area about the size of Texas, which includes about a third of the butterflies’ breeding grounds, according to Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Washington, D.C., and other scientists.

The butterflies also are threatened by changing climates, increased droughts, super storms and by the growth of suburban areas, Curry and other scientists said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service review was spurred by a 150-page petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society in Arizona and monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower that delineates evidence of the decline of the monarch population.

“We’re at risk of losing a symbolic backyard beauty that has been part of the childhood of every generation of Americans,” Curry said in August when the petition was presented to the federal government.

When the federal government announced it would conduct a status review, Vanessa Kauffman, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the petition “presents substantial information indicating that listing (the butterfly) may be warranted.”

Kauffman said the Parks and Wildlife Service is requesting the public provide information about the butterfly before March 2.

Taylor founded Monarch Watch to educate the public and research the butterflies in 1992. In March 2005, studies had shown that monarch habitat was declining at a rate of 6,000 acres a day in the United States.

Today Taylor says more than 9,000 way stations have been built for the monarchs.

He and others with Monarch Watch have started a campaign called “Bring Back The Monarchs,” to generate public participation. They are asking people to plant milkweed in home gardens, schoolyards, parks and commercial landscaping.