A new agreement meant to preserve thousands of acres of monarch butterfly habitat invites energy and transportation companies to commit to certain conservation measures now and avoid costly mitigation if the insect is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act later this year.

So far, local energy companies have expressed interest but not committed to joining the effort to boost pollinator habitat. The deadline to participate is May 31.

On April 8, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and University of Illinois-Chicago announced the Monarch Butterfly Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). The agreement asks energy and transportation companies to commit to conservation measure on land they control through right-of-way agreements for pollinator habitat and paying fees that average about $15,000 a year.

More than 40 energy and transportation companies in the U.S. that control millions of acres of habitat through oil and gas pipeline and utility rights-of-way worked to create the agreement, said Iris Caldwell, who will manage the project out of the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Energy Resource Center. The Texas Department of Transportation and TC Energy of Houston are the only two entities representing Texas so far.

“We envision most of the partners who helped to develop the agreement will sign on,” she said, adding that 20 organizations are currently undergoing the application process.

But local energy companies said they need time to review the conservation agreement.

San Antonio’s CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally owned public gas and electric utility, oversees thousands of acres of potential habitat. It called the agreement “an interesting opportunity we would explore in the future,” said Nora Castro, a spokeswoman for CPS Energy.

San Antonio-based NuStar Energy was also noncommittal.

“While we are butterfly lovers here at NuStar, we are still looking into this CCAA so we do not have any comment at this time,” said company spokesman Chris Cho. He added that NuStar is planting the monarch’s host plant, milkweed, at its headquarters.

Leslie Ann Garza-Wright, marketing and communications manager for OCI Solar, which owns and operates two solar farms on about 500 acres of private property in San Antonio, said the company has not yet connected with organizers about participating in the agreement.

“We applaud the USFWS for its work to protect the monarch butterfly and we will adhere to all guidance and directives the USFWS issues to protect this important species,” she said.

Fortune 500 company Valero Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

The agreement commits companies to boost pollinator habitat, minimize herbicides, use local native seed mixes, and monitor habitat for quantity and quality. In exchange, participants in the agreement receive assurances that no additional conservation measures will be imposed if the monarch butterfly is declared a “threatened” species.

In August 2014, the monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The fish and wildlife service found such a listing might be warranted and initiated a status review of the species. After several delays, a ruling on the butterflies’ status under the Endangered Species Act is expected in December.

“The purpose of CCAAs is to conduct conservation before a species needs to be listed and to potentially preclude the need to list,” said Georgia Parham of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adding that when the agency makes its decision on whether to list the monarch as threatened, “agreements like this, and other efforts, will be considered.”

Scientists estimate that more than a billion monarch butterflies populated the insects’ high-altitude roosts in the Mexican mountains as recently as 1996. Since then, industrial agriculture, habitat loss, genetically modified crops, overuse of pesticides, and climate change have combined to take their toll on the species.

A chart from Monarch Watch tracks the area occupied by monarch butterflies during the winter in Mexico by year.

Today, the migratory monarch butterfly population numbers about 60 million, according to the most recent estimates. The California monarch population, a separate demographic from those east of the Rocky Mountains that migrate to Mexico, totaled 4.5 million in the 1980s. Last year, they numbered an estimated 29,000.

Beryl Armstrong, a partner in Austin-based Plateau Land and Wildlife Management, has worked with private landowners on conservation of rare and endangered species related to the Endangered Species Act for decades. He sees the monarch conservation agreement as “real enough progress” and a good option for companies hedging their bets against potentially harsh ESA enforcement.

“It’s always better for two parties to agree than to chase people around with a stick and try to make them do stuff,” said Armstrong.

Another possibility, he said, is companies are gambling that the monarch will not get listed. “Why pay $15,000 a year if the problem might go away permanently for free?”

Whether energy companies ultimately sign on to the conservation agreement or decide to wait for the decision on the monarch’s status, those interested in the fate of the monarch butterfly population support the idea of helping preserve the insect’s habitat.

“If it results in millions of acres of monarch habitat, I think that’s a good thing,” said Lee Marlowe, president of the San Antonio Native Plant Society and an ecological restorationist for the San Antonio River Authority.

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Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...