GREENBELT, Md. (AP) – Hand-raising monarch butterflies in the midst of a global extinction crisis, Laura Moore and her neighbors gather round in her suburban Maryland yard to launch a butterfly newly emerged from its chrysalis.
Eager to play his part, Thomas Powell, 3, flaps his arms and exclaims, “I’m flying! I’m flying!”
Moore moves to release the hours-old monarch onto the boy’s outstretched finger. But the butterfly, its wings a vivid orange and black, has another idea. It banks away, beginning its new life up in the green shelter of a nearby tree.
Monarchs are in trouble despite efforts to nurture the beloved butterfly by Moore and countless other volunteers as well as organizations across the United States. The Trump administration’s new order weakening the Endangered Species Act could well make things worse for the monarch, one of more than 1 million species that are struggling around the globe.
Rapid development and climate change are escalating the rates of species loss, according to a recent United Nations report. For monarchs, human development has eradicated state-size swaths of monarch-critical native milkweed habitat. Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed. Milkweed loss has cut the butterfly’s numbers by 90 percent during the past two decades.
With its count decreasing by 99 percent to the tens of thousands in the western United States this past year, the monarch is now under government consideration for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. A decision on whether the monarch will be listed as threatened is expected by December 2020.
Climate change is one of the main drivers of the monarch’s threatened extinction, disrupting an annual 3,000-mile migration synced to springtime and the blossoming of wildflowers. A single wet storm followed by a freeze in 2002 killed an estimated 450 million monarchs in their winter home in Mexico, piling wings inches deep on a forest floor.
Volunteers like Moore grow plants to feed and host the monarchs, nurture caterpillars, and tag and count monarchs during annual migrations across America. Wildlife experts encourage the growing of milkweed to help. But some are doubtful about the common practice of raising monarchs from their chrysalis out of concern it allows less-healthy butterflies to survive.
Moore has filled her 20-by-20-foot yard with milkweed, fleabane and other butterfly-nectar and -host plants. Her hope is that grass-roots efforts of thousands of volunteers will save the monarch.
“People having an interest in it might reverse it. It’s encouraging,” said Moore, who also raises extra milkweed to give away.
Monarchs can serve as reminders of the other endangered species, said Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin-Arboretum. She’s a conservation biologist who has studied monarchs since 1984.
“One of the reasons I think it’s so important to focus on monarch conservation is monarchs connect people to nature,” she said. “They’re beautiful. They’re impressive. People have seen them since we were children.
“If the changes that humans are causing are leading to the decline of species that are as common as the monarchs, it’s scary. The environment is changing such a lot that monarchs are declining. And I think that doesn’t bode well for humans.”
Corn and soybean farmer Wayne Fredericks of Osage, Iowa, takes part in federal-government programs that pay farmers to seed islands of native wildflowers and grasses on their land. Coming through the corn rows on his 750 acres this spring, Fredericks said he was thrilled to see the result. Orange and black wings were fluttering among seeded prairie flowers.
“This year it is just awesome,” he said. “(As farmers) we’ve evolved to have clean fields.”
He said they’ve used tractors and potent weed killers to make them that way.
“And unfortunately it killed the milkweed,” he said.
Butterflies are pretty, he said, but persuading farmers to work around aggressively spreading milkweed will take money.
“When it’s made economic sense to do so, it happened right away,” he said.
Farmer Nancy Kavazanjian has included solar panels and patches of pollinator-friendly wildflowers amid her corn, soybean and wheat near Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.
“If we’re going to be sustainable, we have to pay the bills,” she said.
Monarch supporters want to win federal protections for monarchs and their milkweed habitat.
“The devil is in the details, isn’t it?” Kavazanjian said. “The wording and the enforcement … if invasive species meets endangered species, then what happens?”
Richard Wilkins is a Delaware grower who shuns the federal farm-habitat programs. But he said he hopes that leaving what weeds and wildflowers survive in hard-to-mow areas helps wildlife.
“We’re trying to do what we can,” he said. “I think you’ll find there’s lots of farmers (who feel that way).”
Oberhauser said, “It’s really important here we not blame farmers. What we need instead of pointing fingers is, we need to make up for that.”
She mentioned programs that pull unproductive lands out of farming and into set-aside patches for wildlife.
In the U.S. West, where monarchs spend the winter rather than migrate to Mexico, their numbers have plummeted from 4.5 million in the 1980s to fewer than 30,000 this past winter. Tierra Curry is an Oregon-based senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity conservation-advocacy group. She said because the monarch was once so common, many people believe there’s no way monarchs can be endangered.
But for her son who’s 14, it’s already almost a post-monarch world. Despite the more than a dozen milkweed plants that the family plants in their yard they haven’t seen one monarch yet this year.