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This week, the beloved insects were listed as “Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, a global authority on which animals and plants are facing extinction.
The migratory monarch subspecies is notorious for migrating yearly from warm winter homes in Mexico and California to spend the summer across North America.
But that journey has gotten far more perilous as deforestation has destroyed their habitat while pesticides, herbicides and climate crisis-fuelled disasters kill the butterflies and the milkweed plants they rely on, IUCN says.
As a result, their populations have plummeted in the past few decades. Populations in the eastern part of the continent has declined by 84 per cent since the mid-1990s, IUCN says.
Luckily, there are some things individuals can do to help.
To start, people with outdoor spaces can plant milkweed. Milkweeds can be thought of as weeds, notes the non-profit National Wildlife Federation (NWF), so the plants have been cleared in many places.
But to the monarchs, the milkweed is essential — it’s the only place they lay their eggs. And the plants can make a nice addition to a garden, with flowers ranging from pink to white to orange, depending on the species.
The non-profit insect conservation group Xerces Society has guides for many of the native milkweed plants for many corners of the continent.
In addition to milkweed, the monarchs need other plants to feed on. Xerces Society also has guides to nectar-filled plants that monarchs can feed from for different regions.
Many of these plants will be beneficial to more than just the butterflies — they’ll also attract other insects like bees and beetles, as well as some other pollinators like hummingbirds.
Both NWF and the Xerces Society also ask that people refrain from using pesticides in their gardens, which can kill the butterflies and other native insects.
Depending on where people live, there may also be ways they can help scientists gather important data on monarch populations. The Xerces Society points out both the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, which asks people to upload sightings of the butterflies and their milkweeds, and the Western Monarch Count, an annual volunteer-led count of monarch butterflies.
While some monarch conservation efforts are larger than individual actions, keeping native grasslands and other wild patches protected can also help support the continent’s populations, says NWF.
Migratory monarchs, in addition to losing their milkweed homes and dying from pesticides, face the dangers of the climate crisis. Planetary warming is fuelling more intense droughts that can preclude milkweed growth, and climate consequences like severe weather can kill butterflies, the IUCN notes.
Worldwide, insects are in trouble as habitat loss, pesticides and the climate crisis decimate many populations. A 2019 study found that 40 per cent of all insect species worldwide are at risk of extinction.
Species like butterflies and bees are in particular danger, the authors of that study noted.
Insect extinctions could have massive repercussions for the rest of life on Earth. For one, many other animals eat insects, making them a source of nutrients for mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish.
Insects also pollinate many plants that humans rely on for agriculture, making them vital to the food supply.
And many — like the monarch butterfly — are simply appreciated for their presence.