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Trump administration delays endangered species protection for monarch butterfly "on the brink of collapse"

Nature: Migrating monarchs
Nature: Migrating monarchs 03:29

Trump administration officials announced Tuesday that the beloved monarch butterfly is a "candidate" for federal designation as a threatened species — but will not receive the designation for several years, as there are other priorities. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was asked to protect the butterfly in 2014, with a decision expected this week. However, officials proposed Tuesday listing the monarch under the Endangered Species Act in 2024, delaying several legal protections for the butterfly and its habitat.  

Charlie Wooley, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Great Lakes office, said that the species' status will be reviewed annually, "until it is no longer a candidate."

"We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act. However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith. "While this work goes on, we are committed to our ongoing efforts with partners to conserve the monarch and its habitat at the local, regional and national levels."

Officials said that there are 161 species of plants, insects, freshwater mussels, fish, birds and mammals on the waiting list that are a higher priority than the monarch. 

Restoring butterflies' habitats 04:19

The iconic black and orange butterflies can be found across the U.S., but the increased use of farm herbicides, destruction of milkweed plants and climate change have recently caused an exponential decline of the species. 

After the species' population began to drop off in the mid-1990s, a nationwide campaign sought to renew their presence, but those efforts have not been enough. Between 1994 and 2016, the eastern monarch population plunged more than 80% and a federal review found "a substantial probability" of collapse in the next two decades.

The western monarch population has fared no better.

On Monday, the San Diego Zoo announced that preliminary research indicates a total of less than 2,000 monarch butterflies were found this year in California, where there used to be millions — representing a stunning population drop of more than 99% since the 1980s. 

The numbers are down from the "dangerously low" levels of less than 30,000 monarchs for the past two years, the zoo said. "The incredible migration of western monarchs is a unique yet fragile piece of North America's natural history, and it is on the brink of collapse," said Paige Howorth, director of invertebrate care and conservation at San Diego Zoo Global. 

Conservations say that Tuesday's decision by the Trump administration could be the last straw for the rapidly declining species.

"Protection for Monarchs is needed—and warranted—now," George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety said in a statement. "In acknowledging that listing is needed, but still avoiding that decision, the Trump administration has placed Monsanto profits above Monarchs. The Biden administration must follow the law and science and protect them."

"Forty-seven species have gone extinct waiting for their protection to be finalized," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "This decision continues the delay in implementing a national recovery plan which monarchs desperately need."

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees that monarchs are threatened with extinction," Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species at the Xerces Society, said in a news release. "However, this decision does not yet provide the protection that monarchs, and especially the western population, so desperately need to recover." 

Last year, the Trump administration broadly altered the requirements for adding and removing species from the list under the Endangered Species Act. The move makes it more difficult to protect species threatened by human-caused climate change, activists say, speeding up extinction. 

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