What it took to list the Monarch as Endangered – And how citizen scientists helped

The Science Near Me blog is a partnership between Discover magazine and ScienceNearMe.org.

If you live in North America, chances are good that you’ve seen a monarch butterfly—unless you really liked their burrows in your area. Black and orange beauties are a sure sign of the changing seasons, whether their arrival heralds spring, summer or autumn where you live. They glide over our gardens, with a butterfly, butterfly, swim, looking for a sip of nectar or a milkweed leaf on which to lay their eggs.

But these special sightings are becoming increasingly rare as butterfly populations dwindle. The largest, eastern butterfly population declined by 84 percent from 1996 to 2014, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports.while the smaller western population has declined by nearly 99.9 percent since the 1980s.

Experts with the IUCN, which maintains IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, officially listed the species as endangered this July. This means that they are facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

Join us on Tuesday, August 30, 2022 for a special SciStarter LIVE event: Observing Monarch butterflies, for science! Learn more and register for the free event.

Monarchs have a unique migration pattern – they take multiple generations to travel across the continent. In summer, they live in the US and southern Canada, extracting nectar from flowers and laying eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. In winter, they gather in only a few places in California and Mexico. It is in these places where the decline has been most pronounced and classified the insects as endangered – in the winter of 2020-2021, they were found in only about five hectares of forest. In California, they counted only 1,914 butterflies.

The biggest threat to monarchs is logging and habitat loss in their wintering grounds. If the specific forests where these butterflies winter, the monarchs will also disappear. Add to this the widespread removal of milkweeds—which are required for monarchs to reproduce—throughout their breeding range, thanks in particular to improvements in the herbicides farmers use to keep farmland weed-free. Top it all off with climate change bringing temperature extremes, droughts and changes in when flowers bloom, it’s no wonder butterflies are in such trouble.

Monarchs are rising. (Credit: Mike Budd/USFWS)

The IUCN Red List is divided into List of endangered species maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which provides legal protection to the species under the Endangered Species Act. Although the Red List has no legal backing, it is considered the gold standard for assessing the status of species worldwide.

The new list is important, explains entomologist Anna Walker, because it provides a frame of reference for how threatened a species really is to be lost. “I think it’s really important to put the conservation status of an iconic species like the monarch in a global context,” Walker says. “It gives people a way to contextualize, how concerned should we be?”

Walker, species survival officer at the New Mexico Biopark Society, led the monarch assessment. She is a member of the Butterfly and Moth Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

How a species is listed as endangered

For a new species to be added to the IUCN Red List, conservation biologists like Walker compile a comprehensive report on how much the species has declined and how fast, how much their habitat has been destroyed, what threats remain, what conservation efforts are in place progress and more.

“Most of the insect species I’ve seen just don’t have information, and it’s really frustrating,” she says. “We did a project where we assessed all 132 North American fire species, and more than half of them had data gaps, which means we don’t know enough about the species to determine whether or not it’s at risk. disappearance. That’s really common.”

Learn more from The Citizen Science Podcast: Pollinatorpalooza! Learn about scientists’ efforts to monitor important pollinators like bumblebees, monarch butterflies, and hummingbirds, and how you can help, featuring citizen science projects Bumble Bee Watch, Journey North, and the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

Fortunately for the Monarchs, Walker had plenty of information to compile the report. “There was a lot of data to sort through because not only has academic research been done on it, but it’s a species that has also benefited from community science,” she says.

Walker says the most critical data for the assessment was population counts from monarch wintering grounds. “Because this butterfly congregates in a small area in the winter, it makes it relatively easy to figure out how many there are,” she explains. “Plus the wintering population is smaller – that’s when it has the smallest number of individuals, and therefore that’s when it’s most vulnerable.”

A monarch butterfly sips nectar from a New England aster. (Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS)

How citizen scientists promote conservation

Walker says her job in conservation would be easier if more people contributed to citizen science projects. “There just aren’t enough researchers, we don’t have enough resources for just scientists to go out and collect all this data,” she says. “There are millions of insects and we understand so little about most of them.”

Monarch butterflies have been somewhat of an exception due to their popularity. They are easy to spot and identify, aesthetically pleasing, and even easy to grow in classrooms or at home to release into the wild. As far as insects go, they are extremely well studied and their declines are well documented.

“It’s really, really important and people can make a big difference,” she says. “And I think the monarch is a good case for that.”

Get involved: Find citizen science projects that help monarchs near you ScienceNearMe.org!

For example, monarch tagging programs like the Southwest Monarch Study have led many researchers to understand where specific populations — like those in Arizona — winter. “We definitely have community scientists to thank for a lot of our understanding of migration,” Walker says.

Observations of milkweeds, which can be submitted through citizen science apps like iNaturalist, can guide restoration efforts (where is the milkweed missing?) and tell conservation biologists where important milkweed habitats are. milk.

Even just general observations of butterflies are also useful. For example, the North American Butterfly Association maintains an annual butterfly count, and these records are also useful for monarch conservation. “Even if you’re not looking specifically for monarchs, and you’re just looking at butterflies in general, you can contribute to monarch research,” Walker says.

A future for monarchs

Walker came across some good news while working on the IUCN report. Although the number of monarchs is still very low, their decline at least seems to have slowed down a bit. Their summer breeding populations have been more stable recently. Walker suspects a big part of that is dairy farming efforts. “People are planting milkweed in their yards and parks, and it seems like it can make a big difference,” she says.

Do you want to participate? Find out more about citizen science projects and other opportunities to help monarchs at Science Near Me. Science Near Me is a free resource to help you find opportunities to get involved in all kinds of science events, projects and programs near you, in person and online. Its citizen science projects come from partner SciStarter.org, which hosts thousands of citizen science projects from all over the internet! Find ways to report monarch sightings, participate in tagging campaigns, raise caterpillars, attend monarch events and more ScienceNearMe.org.

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