Can A Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan Save Their Dwindling Populations?

By Ajit Jha on February 2, 2014 12:19 PM EST

monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly populations are at an all-time low, dropping to about 35 million from nearly one billion 17 years ago. Now, the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico has devised a plan to bolster their dying populations. (Photo: SidPix, CC BY 2.0)

This could be the most shocking news for monarch butterfly enthusiasts in North America. Monarch butterflies are at an all-time low. Now, the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico has devised a plan, hoping to increase the monarch butterfly population.

Monarch butterfly populations were at their peak in 1996, when there were nearly a billion monarchs spanning over nearly 45 acres of forest in Mexico's monarch sanctuaries, where they winter, according to a press release from World Wildlife Fund-Mexico. Their current population is down to 35 million with a very slim possibility of rebounding. Their population in the sanctuaries in 2012 encompassed only three acres, and dropped to 1.65 acres this past December. In the month of December, the butterflies could be found on just about seven percent of Mexico's monarch sanctuaries. 

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There are a number of short- and long-term factors that work in combination to decimate the population of monarchs. Extreme weather conditions, including heat, drought, and cold, wet weather have mostly affected them over the past two years - and, of course, are the biggest short-term culprit. Meanwhile, they must also deal with vanishing habitats and the increased presence of GMO crops, which are known to wipe out milkweed, their only host plant.

Two hundred years of changing farming practices hasn't made as much of a dent on monarch's habitat and breeding grounds as a decade of GMO farming. Milkweed and other wild flowers that the monarchs feed and thrive on could grow along the edges and between rows of corn and other crops. However, the introduction of Roundup-ready corn and soybeans around 1997 killed many monarchs, and even bees, which require native flowers to live.

With these new varieties of crops, the farmers no longer till weeds but merely spray the fields with Roundup, which the plants are resistant to. As more insecticide is added to the plants, more monarchs have difficulty living near them. Pesticide exposure kills honeybees by weakening their immune system, according scientists.

The three-pronged approach of the North American Monarch Conservation Plan focuses on habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement; increasing milkweed on public and private lands; and informing the public and relevant agencies about monarch conservation efforts.

According to the U.S Forest Service, "the persistence of the monarch butterfly's spectacular and unique migratory phenomenon is dependent on the conservation of habitats in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. No species better symbolizes the ecological links among the three countries." 

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