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Protecting the monarch’s reign

There’s a theory fluttering about in both science and popular culture called the “butterfly effect,” the idea that small, seemingly trivial events may ultimately result in something with much larger consequences. Farmers and conservationists are literally dealing with a butterfly effect right now when it comes to concerns about the dwindling population of the monarch.

Last month, the North American monarch butterfly was classified as endangered on the “Red List of Threatened Species” by the Inter­national Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global environmen­tal organization established in 1948. This listing will be the first time the monarch has officially been declared at risk of extinction.

The IUCN said the decision comes after a continued decrease in monarch numbers driven by habitat losses and climate change. In the past decade, the population has dropped between 22% and 72% globally.

Before you get overly alarmed, wait just a minute. This doesn’t mean the monarch butterfly is now an endan­gered species. Confusing, I know.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the ultimate authority on what meets criteria under the En­dangered Species Act, and it has not determined that the monarch butter­fly should be considered endangered. Yet. The IUCN Red List, on the other hand, is merely a conservation assessment, one of many tools used in decision-making processes for public, private and non-governmen­tal organizations when it comes to threatened species.

Here in the U.S., the monarch’s status is reviewed every year by the Fish and Wildlife Service until it’s no longer a candidate. In December 2020, the agency stopped just short of calling the butterfly endangered. It meets the criteria but the focus is on higher priorities. Including the monarch on the Red List, however, could put it one step closer.

Keeping the monarch off the endangered species roster has long been a top concern for the agricul­tural community. The main threat, of course, is that the extinction of this important pollinating insect would be detrimental to crops and, indeed, the entire ecosystem. More than 150 food crops in the United States, including almost all fruit and grain, depend on pollinators, according to the USDA. And the monarch isn’t the only one with declining populations.

An endangered species classifi­cation for the monarch would also severely limit the use of insecticides in crop production. The ramifications could be far-reaching, said Adam Jones, MFA’s conservation specialist. The USFWS has broad authority to restrict activity that could kill or harm endangered species, includ­ing altering its habitat. For insects, that could mean spraying, mowing, plowing, grazing or other common land-use practices on your property.

And, in MFA territory, monarchs are more than likely going to be found on your property or near­by land. The highly recognizable orange-and-black butterflies have a unique migration pattern that takes them each spring from their over­wintering habitat in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico to Canada and back. They’re the only butterfly with such an advanced migration, which can be up to 3,000 miles long. The heart of their summer migration range is the midwestern Corn Belt, where most of the world’s monarchs are born on milkweed plants.

The plight of the migratory monarch started gaining attention in 2014. Missouri was one of the first states to spring into action. In 2015, a collaborative of conservation and agricultural organizations, govern­ment and non-government agencies, utilities, agribusinesses and citizens formed Missourians for Monarchs and adopted a state conservation plan specifically dedicated to polli­nators. MFA Incorporated is one of those members.

Being proactive is critical, Jones said. One of his responsibilities at MFA is to encourage habitat resto­ration and conservation practices that are beneficial to monarchs and other pollinators. He said planting and maintaining wildlife habitat, following best management practices in pesticide use and reducing unnec­essary mowing are some of the most important actions that farmers and landowners can take.

“Anybody can do those things,” Jones said. “If we’ve got tons of habitat out there, and we’re following label directions on everything that we spray, we won’t have this problem.”

Pollinator plots are a good fit for farmers, Jones added, because they can be established on marginal ground without sacrificing produc­tion of cash crops. Many USDA cost-share programs and public-private initiatives exist to help growers install and maintain pollinator plots.

Monarchs are likely not top of mind as producers deal with bigger challenges and uncertainties in their operations, but the reality is that this simple butterfly could have a huge effect on the future of farming. We don’t want it on the endangered species list. Voluntary efforts are better for agriculture than regulatory mandates. Let’s all do our part to help keep this insect from further decline.

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