Amid a national conversation about the health of bees, butterflies and other pollinators, the U.S. EPA last week released a document outlining the agency's potential approach to protecting monarchs, a species of butterfly that relies on dwindling availability of milkweed for forage.
The document, posted for public review on the Federal Register until July 24, outlines actions that could be used to protect monarch butterflies, and seeks comment on which actions may be most effective in reducing impacts of herbicides on the monarch's feedstuff and habitat.
According to the EPA, monarch protections are being considered for two reasons. First, because the U.S., Canada and Mexico have recognized the monarch as an "emblematic species" shared by the countries, and second, because the federal government has tasked agencies to develop strategies that ensure protection of pollinators, such as the monarch.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 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. Pesticides also have affected mortality, it added.
Some groups have been working toward restoring milkweed availability and helped spark the discussion surrounding monarchs by suggesting that use of the herbicide glyphosate has impacted milkweed availability and, consequently, monarch populations.
Though the EPA denied a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council to reduce the use of glyphosate to protect milkweed, EPA says its new attention on the issue are in line with the ultimate goal of NRDC's petition.
What EPA is proposing
In its document, the EPA says it plans to work with a range of partners to develop actions and track progress on monarch protection, and any efforts will be built on input from federal, academic, public, industry, non-governmental stakeholders.
"We will look to our stakeholders to provide input for developing actions that are meaningful and are aimed at the protection of the monarch butterfly and its habitat but that are also balanced with respect to land owners needs for weed and vegetation management," the agency said.
Canada, Mexico, and the Department of the Interior also will be key partners, EPA said.
A key focus of the plan will be on herbicides. EPA says it will review a broad range of herbicides – not just glyphosate – with the understanding that if only glyphosate was impacted, herbicides use wouldn't be eliminated, it would shift to other products.
Specifically, EPA will evaluate:
• Volume of herbicides used in ag production and non-ag areas like rangeland, forestry sites and rights-of-way;
• Information on the monarch related to life cycle, seasonal distribution and populations;
• Data relating to impacts of herbicides on milkweed;
• Information on spatial and temporal parameters of weed management needs and where weed management needs overlap with monarch habitat; and
• Information on existing practices that promote ag production and maintenance of milkweed
Following the comment period on EPA's document, the agency says it will gather more information on the situation and reach out to stakeholders for development of next steps.
Ag groups already are taking notice of the issue, with Monsanto earlier this year offering $400,000 toward efforts that will benefit monarchs.
The donation, made in early spring, was in addition to a previous $3.6 million grant to match funds provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will support restoration, education, outreach and milkweed seed production for monarchs.
Following the donation, Brett Begemann, president and chief operating officer of Monsanto, acknowledged weed management has been a factor in the loss of milkweed, and "the agricultural sector can absolutely be part of the solution in restoring it."
"It is clear that sufficient progress cannot be made without action. Monsanto will work alongside others to address this important element of biodiversity," he said.
Corn and soybean growers' associations also have participated in efforts to protect the monarch, meeting at the Keystone Monarch Collaborative meeting held in St. Paul, Minn., in April.
In addition to discussing efforts already underway to assist monarchs, the group explored the usefulness of a more comprehensive planning process.
The National Corn Growers attended the meeting, along with the American Soybean Association. NCGA Director of Public Policy Ethan Mathews said after the group met that they shared in the discussion to learn about the type of conservation efforts recommended for farmers to improve the health of monarch populations.
"While our proposed solutions to this issue may vary widely, we understand the importance of having a seat at the table and working on areas of mutual agreement to find the best outcome possible that takes farmers' concerns into consideration," Mathews said.