Your Turn: Maintaining biodiversity has to become a collective responsibility

We are attracted to the iconic, beautiful and most mysterious of species. Their conservation becomes a matter of concern. These are the shiny objects of conservation. Lesser known but, perhaps equally important species, are ignored with many slipping away to low numbers and virtual, if not actual, extinction. The possibility that the spectacular, yet partially understood, monarch butterfly migration will disappear is yet another shiny object.

Monarch numbers have declined since the mid-1990s, and the prospect seems to be that another phenomenon will be lost forever, as the result of human-driven environmental change and indifference. But is concern about losing the migration justified? Is the population continuing to decline?

A recent study indicates that, although the numbers vary from year to year, the population is relatively stable. Recently, in response to those findings, the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the status of monarchs from endangered to vulnerable. Though monarch numbers are no longer declining at a detectable pace, their numbers will slowly decline due to incremental changes in land use and the expansion of our urban areas unless habitat restoration becomes a more consistent collaborative endeavor across its range. Sustaining the migration will require maintaining current habitats, restoration of habitats that have been degraded, and finding landscapes, especially in urban areas, to which monarch host plants and nectar-producing plants can be introduced.

The concern about the decline in monarch numbers led to a petition in 2014 to declare the monarchs endangered. A final decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the status of monarchs will be offered later this year in Bloomington, Minnesota, by the Region Three office. But will it help to have the monarch declared endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act? How would such a declaration, and the accompanying regulations, benefit monarch conservation? How would agriculture and landowners be affected? Will money be available for habitat restoration given the increasing number of species being added to the threatened and endangered listings? Probably not. Actions by the public, landowners, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, businesses, schools and local governments will be needed to sustain the monarch migration.

However, the monarch is more than a shiny object for conservation. Attention to monarchs is a distraction from a larger issue, namely the massive and widespread decline in insects and invertebrates. Although the decline in monarch numbers is measurable, with most of the decline attributed to habitat loss and more recently, to changes in the weather. These changes are surely happening to thousands of species — mostly invertebrates, including pollinators whose pollination services largely support plants, the varied insects that feed on them, and a vast web of species, including many birds, that feed on these insects. There is no doubt our actions are having the effect of reducing the complexity and diversity of life. Food webs are being altered and collapsing. This is not news. You can see it everywhere you travel. The narrowly adapted species and those with low reproductive rates are gone. The remaining are the generalists that often have broad distributions. Monarchs are such a species.

There will always be monarchs. They are a broadly distributed and adaptable species with a high reproductive rate and a demonstrated ability to recover from high mortality due to winter conditions in Mexico and droughts in Texas and the Upper Midwest. Catastrophic mortality due to extreme weather events is part of their history. As recently reported, their numbers are now at an all-time low as the result of drought conditions last fall that extended from Oklahoma deep into central Mexico. The numbers have been low many times in the past and have recovered, and they will again. Monarchs are resilient. Yet, at this point in time, we have to be agents in this recovery. The solution is habitat and dedicated resources for its restoration on private lands. We need to sustain and restore habitats, mostly grasslands, that support a vast diversity of insect and bird life. Slowing the rate of climate change is another priority. That will take time.

Shiny object or not, to save the monarch migration, pollinators, and a vast array of invertebrates, and to maintain the connectivity in the ecosystems that support us, we must act with haste. Maintaining biodiversity has to become a collective responsibility.

— Orley “Chip” Taylor is the founding director of Monarch Watch and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas.


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