The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a status review of the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act, it said late last month, in response to a petition from several environmental groups.
The FWS says many monarchs migrate between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, logging journeys of more than 3,000 miles. But habitat loss – particularly the loss of the monarch caterpillar's only food source, the milkweed – has made the journey more perilous, FWS said. Pesticides also have affected mortality, it added.
The agency will determine if an ESA listing is warranted through a 60-day public information period that will close March 2.
Environmental groups supporting the review included the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Dr. Lincoln Brower.
The groups said the FWS review decision brings monarchs "a step closer to the protection they so desperately need."
According to the groups, the monarch population has declined from a recorded high of approximately 1 billion butterflies in the mid-1990s to 35 million butterflies last winter.
Groups said widespread adoption of GMO crops in the Midwest has in large part driven the monarch decline. Use of products like Roundup on these crops kills milkweed plants, they note.
In addition to herbicide use with GMO crops, the groups said, monarchs also are threatened by climate change, other pesticides, urban sprawl and logging on their Mexican wintering grounds.
The group's suggestion that Roundup, which is manufactured by Monsanto, is a key driver of habitat loss for monarchs isn't anything new. Monsanto agrees loss of milkweed is a contributing factor of monarch population loss, and it is collaborating with nonprofits, government agencies and university experts to find ways to restore their habitat.
The company notes it is part of a coalition of stakeholders to discuss monarch habitat solutions. Some restoration suggestions include using Crop Reserve Program land, on-farm buffer strips, roadsides, utility rights-of way and government-owned land for milkweed habitats.
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service already has partnered with the Xerces Society on a three-year project to increase availability of milkweed seed where it's not typically available for habitat restoration.
The next step on the petition will be FWS' determination that will propose protection under the Endangered Species Act, reject protection under the Act or add the butterfly to the candidate waiting list for protection.
For the public information period, FWS requested specifically information on subspecies’ biology, range and population trends, habitat requirements, genetics and taxonomy; historical and current range, including distribution patterns; and historical and current population levels and current and projected trends, among other information.
Information can be submitted now on regulations.gov under docket number FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056.