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Monarch Butterflies May Be Fluttering Toward Extinction

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Are they fluttering toward extinction? Once common monarch butterflies may be headed that way.

Alex DeMetrick reports the monarch's population has plunged and that's bringing calls to protect it.

Once, wings of orange were everywhere. But monarch butterflies are in trouble.

"There's a good chance that these insects could become extinct," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist for the Center for Food Safety.

That's because of the life or death connection monarchs have to milkweed. There are close-up views of that relationship on the Internet.

Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, whose toxins protect it from predators. But milkweed is also vanishing.

"So when you're getting less and less of that, then you're not going to get your monarch caterpillars eating and feeding and growing," said Winny Tan, Oregon Ridge Nature Center.

The explosion of corn modified to withstand chemicals that kill weeds but spare crops is reducing the monarch's habitat.

Long living, long distance fliers, in our area Monarchs migrate from mid-Atlantic states to Cape May, New Jersey and from there South to Florida and Texas--with their biggest numbers over-wintering in Mexico.

That's where their numbers are counted. There were 1 billion monarchs 20 years ago.

"Most recently, we only saw 35 million," said Gurian-Sherman.

That's a population crash of 90 percent.

"That's a recipe for disaster. Again, that's why we're urging the federal government to list these butterflies under the Endangered Species Act as threatened," Gurian-Sherman said.

Which will likely focus on limiting weed killers to preserve milkweeds and a popular insect.

"I have kids that come out here, of all the butterflies, once you see that orange one, they all know it's a monarch. It would be sad to lose that beauty," Tan said.

If listed as a threatened species, backers hope it will give monarch populations time to rebuild while sparing farmers and state governments the tougher restrictions of an endangered species listing.

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