Migratory monarch butterfly now classified as Endangered

Monarch butterfly perched on a purple flowered stem in the El Rosario Monarch Reserve in Mexico

Known for its bright orange colors and its incredible annual migration, the migratory monarch butterfly is now classified as “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It’s troubling news for an insect that represents nature at its most powerful — a tiny, delicate creature that can travel nearly 3000 miles from the northern US and southern Canada to its overwintering destination in Mexico. There, at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, monarchs congregate by the millions in the oyamel trees. By the start of spring, monarchs are ready to mate and migrate back to the U.S. They fly another 1,000 miles to lay their eggs only on milkweed plants, which will eventually serve as a food source for the caterpillars.

Migratory monarch butterflies have been overwintering in the forests of Mexico for generations. Scientifically discovered in the late 1970’s, monarchs were historically—and in some cases still today— considered by local people to be the souls of their ancestors. The monarch’s arrival in villages close to the reserve coincides with the Day of the Dead in Mexico, November 1st and 2nd. The bright orange hue of the monarchs is almost identical to the color of the cempazuchitl flower, which blooms around the same time in the region. The flower is considered in Mexico to be the “flower of the dead” and is used to adorn graves to pay respect and celebrate the life of loved ones. Is this all a coincidence? I don’t know, but it certainly takes on a deeper meaning as the migratory monarch faces a more perilous future.

During the last three decades, the eastern migratory monarch butterfly population has decreased by more than 80%, according to WWF monitoring reports. One of main drivers in the decline of the migratory monarch’s population is the use of herbicides in the U.S., resulting in a loss of milkweeds, essential for monarchs reproduction. Additionally, climate variations in North American during the summers of 2004 to 2018, affected both the presence of milkweed and the butterflies’ life cycle. Forest degradation in the butterfly’s Mexican reserve was once a concern but efforts toward sustainability and collaborations with local communities have kept this threat at bay.

“Cataloguing the migratory monarch butterfly of North America to the IUCN Red List, could be an opportunity for the species,” says Eduardo Rendon-Salinas, WWF-Mexico’s monarch butterfly expert. With the monarch classified as Endangered, “The governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico have the scientific basis to collaborate with conservation organizations, the private sector, and civil society in all the initiatives that seek to restore, conserve, and sustainably manage the ecosystems for the reproduction, migration, and overwintering of this emblematic species.”

In other words: We have the science, we have the answers; Now it is up to us to take action.

Swarm of Monarch butterflies