The Monarch’s Precarious Position

Endangered. It’s an imposing term and not one to be taken lightly. Monarchs have been in a perilous spot for years and there have been rumblings of potentially listing monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) as endangered by the UW Fish & Wildlife Service. After delays, we finally received a decision in December of 2020—“warranted but precluded”.

Monarch butterfly on the UW-Madison Campus. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

In a technical sense, labeling a species as endangered isn’t as simple as merely placing it on a list. There’s a lengthy review process and potential species are evaluated in terms of how pressing their situation is. In the case of monarchs, the “warranted” part of the decision indicates that monarchs are indeed in need of protection. The alarming part is the “but precluded” statement—it essentially means that other species are facing even more pressing situations and are ahead in line. Some consider us to be in the midst of the “sixth” major extinction event on planet earth, although this one differs in that it’s caused by humans. In short, there are a lot of species that will be facing declines and extinction. At the time of the monarch’s decision from US FWS, there were currently 161 other species listed ahead of monarchs in the priority queue.

Unfortunately, since the US FWS decision last December, we’ve had some alarming news come out about monarch populations. First, it’s helpful to understand monarchs in the US as we actually have two main populations: a western population and an eastern population.

The western population can be found in states such as California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah west of the Rocky Mountains (a natural barrier to dispersal). While we may think of monarchs migrating to the area outside of Mexico City, this western population heads from their summer grounds to overwinter in parts of southern California. Unfortunately in January of 2021, the Xerces Society reported that only 1,914 total overwintering monarch butterflies were counted—a 99.9% decrease over the last 30 years. For comparison, a similar assessment conducted  in 1997 estimated over 1.2 million overwintering monarchs. Experts have estimated a critical “extinction threshold” of 30,000 monarchs for this western population to hang on. With fewer than 2,000 monarchs spotted in late 2020, the western monarch’s situation can’t get any more urgent.

In the Midwest, we see the eastern monarch population which ranges over much of eastern North America east of the Rocky Mountains. These are the monarchs that make the long perilous flight to overwinter in the mountains outside of Mexico City. While the eastern monarch population’s situation isn’t necessarily as dire as out west, it’s still tenuous to say the least. An assessment of the eastern population is usually released in late winter and the most recent estimate found a 26% drop in overwintering monarch populations compared to last year. Over the last 20 years, the eastern monarch population has declined by approximately 90%. With larger numbers of butterflies in the eastern population, scientists don’t count individual butterflies to gauge their numbers. Instead they estimate the area occupied by densely-packed overwintering monarchs clustered together by the thousands on pine trees at their overwintering habitat in Mexico. The recent assessment found monarchs packed into an area of 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres). While this may sound like a big area packed to the gills with butterflies, it’s estimated that 6 hectares (14.8 acres) of overwintering monarchs is a “critical mass” needed to maintain the eastern population. Unfortunately, the news of both the eastern and western monarch populations comes as a punch to the gut since their numbers have been trending downwards over time.

Assessment of overwintering monarch butterflies, released 2021. Source: MonarchWatch.  Click for more detail.

While monarchs may be in a tight spot, they aren’t gone yet. With the “warranted but precluded” finding, the US Fish & Wildlife Service now considers monarchs a “candidate” species for listing and will continue to assess the situation as higher priority species are added to the endangered species list. In the meantime, if you’re looking for ways to help monarchs, the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative was created in 2018 to coordinate conservation efforts of this species in our state—check out their website to see what you can do to help the monarchs: