RICHARD LEIGHTON PHOTO

In the Right Place



Editor’s note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He shares a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American.

God save the king

By Richard Leighton

The king of butterflies seems to be going the way of most monarchies. There appears to be a likelihood that efforts to save the monarch butterfly have been too little and too late, especially in the West.  

For many years, these beautiful creatures have been experiencing increasing difficulties in finding common milkweed (which is necessary for their life cycle) and pesticide-free flowers to fuel their migrations. To these dangers now has been added fast-escalating climate change with its significant plant- and insect-killing heat, droughts, violent storms and furious fires. 

Over 90 percent of the world’s monarch butterflies reside in North America, where they are divided into two migrating populations. The vast majority of them are in the eastern migration, which is made up of the butterflies that live east of the Rocky Mountains; they migrate each year in succeeding waves to and from the mountaintops of central Mexico. Maine is on the northern edge of the eastern migration.

About 1 percent of the North American monarch population is in the remaining Western population, which migrates mostly to California’s central coast region. These Western butterflies are living a perilous existence and likely will disappear soon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that there is a dire 96-100 percent probability of the Western species collapsing within 50 years. It also found that there is an 80 percent probability that the Eastern monarch population will collapse within that time period. Those projections take into consideration current efforts to aid the butterflies.

In response to a petition, the federal agency found in December of 2020 that “adding the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species is warranted but precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions.” 

With this decision, the lower-priority monarch was denied immediate protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, which requires comprehensive national plans for the recovery of listed species. There reportedly are 161 other candidates waiting in the slow line ahead of the monarch.

The Western monarchs likely don’t have enough time to wait for protection. They are almost all gone; only 2,000 of them were found this winter after intensive searches. The Eastern monarchs almost certainly will disappear within most people’s lifetimes unless something major (and unexpected) is done to change our society’s selfish ways.

Current monarch preservation efforts, which pathetically have to rely in part on convincing gardeners to plant milkweed, are no match for the immense dangers that the fragile butterflies face. Among other actions, sizeable and safe land preserves need to be set up in their breeding and wintering grounds, as well as along their migrating routes.

In March of this year, a bipartisan group of western U.S. legislators proposed to protect the Western monarchs under a Monarch Action, Recovery and Conservation of Habitat Act. The bill in the Senate is S. 809; in the House of Representatives, it is H.B. 1983. The lawmakers had introduced similar proposals in prior Congresses. However, as in the past, there have been plenty of doomsday press releases and not a bit of legislative action.

Take a good look at the accompanying image of a beautiful Monarch butterfly on flowering milkweed, the only plant that its caterpillars eat. Unless something unexpected happens, the odds are that you’ll be seeing fewer and fewer of both over the coming years until there comes a time when children ask, “Grandma, what were monarch butterflies like?”

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