A monarch butterfly is tagged so its migration to Mexico can be tracked and recorded for the threatened species. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

In a case of conservation triage, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined Tuesday that adding monarch butterflies to the list of endangered and threatened species is “warranted but precluded.”

The designation moves the migratory butterfly into the queue behind 161 other species as an official candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. It does not, however, begin regulatory initiatives because the agency has “higher priority listing actions,” according to a USFWS press release. Instead, the monarch’s status will be reevaluated annually.

“It is never good news when we find that listing an animal or plant is warranted,” said Tim Petronski,  assistant regional director of external affairs at US Fish and Wildlife Service, at a midday press conference. “It means tough challenges ahead.”

Petronski lauded the efforts of monarch conservationist organizations, NGOs, volunteers and citizen scientists, stating that such efforts have made a big difference. “That means we have the time to work on listing actions that are a higher priority while we keep our foot on the gas with monarch conservation,” he said.

The ruling came down after more than six years of consideration that resulted in a broad range of public conservation efforts by nonprofit, government agencies, NGOs, and individuals to assist the iconic species. Those collective efforts have resulted in more than 500 million milkweed stems (the monarch butterfly’s host plant) and 5.6 million acres of pollinator habitat planted to date, according to USFWS officials.

In August of 2014, the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted a petition to the Secretary of the Interior requesting the monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the ESA. In December 2014, USFWS published a 90-day finding that stated listing the monarch might be warranted. A status review of the species then was initiated. The Service failed to rule on the petition by the statutory 12-month deadline. A lawsuit ensued, and by 2016, USFWS received a three-year extension. Last year, USFWS received another extension, with a December 15, 2020 deadline.

The decision affects the monarchs’ two distinct populations.

The eastern monarch population, which migrates from Mexico to Canada and back, is much larger and fluctuates annually, numbering in the tens of millions. The butterflies migrate south to overwinter in a small area of high altitude mountains west of Mexico City each fall.

According to USFWS, monarch numbers in the eastern population fell from an estimated 384 million in 1996 (occupying 45 acres of roosting site in Mexico), to fewer than 60 million (about 7.5 acres) in 2019. Both years represent boosts from the historic low in 2013 of 14 million monarchs.

The much smaller western population, which moves up and down the California coast, has seen dismal numbers in recent years as a result of wildfires, climate change, habitat destruction, and pesticide use.

The Xerces Society, a pollinator conservation organization and one of the parties that filed the original ESA petition, announced earlier this month via their Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count that the western migratory population is headed for an all-time low. With approximately 95% of the data in, only 1,800 monarchs had been reported. In 1981, more than one million of the orange and black insects were counted overwintering in eucalyptus trees along the Pacific coast.

Reactions to the news in monarch conservation circles were mixed.

“The warranted but precluded decision for monarchs is the right one at this time,” said Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, which tracks the butterflies’ migration through a citizen science tagging program. “It acknowledges the need for continued vigilance due to the numerous threats to the population while emphasizing the need to continue support for programs that create and sustain habitats for monarchs.”

Karen Oberhauser, founder of Monarch Joint Venture, another citizen science organization devoted to monarchs, and who now serves as director of the University of Wisconsin at Madison Arboretum, expressed measured disappointment in a blog post on the Arboretum’s website.

“If we agree that preserving this amazing species for our children and grandchildren is a worthwhile goal … we must run faster. The protection of the Endangered Species Act would have helped us do that,” wrote Oberhauser. “However, while the USFWS has determined that listing monarchs is warranted by documented declines in their numbers, other species are more at risk. Now, it is up to us to speed up our efforts.”

Beryl Armstrong, a partner in Austin-based Plateau Land and Wildlife Management, has worked with private landowners on conservation of rare and endangered species for decades. He categorized the listing as the USFWS “kicking the can down the road.”

“Basically they’re saying, ‘Yes, the monarch is eligible but we have another 161 species in line, and when you get to your turn, we’ll list you,” said Armstrong.

In San Antonio, the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City designated by the National Wildlife Federation, Laurie Brown, organizer of the Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative and director at Cibolo Center for Conservation, said, “It’s not the best outcome, but it’s not the worst.”

“I am supportive that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will reevaluate the monarch status each year,” she added. “This will keep the monarch and other species that are supported by the same ecosystem in the much needed limelight for conservation.”

The collaborative represents a group of local nonprofits and individuals that work to help the City of San Antonio make good on monarch conservation action items to which it committed for the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge. Mayor Ivy Taylor signed in 2015 and Mayor Nirenberg renewed the pledge in 2017.

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...