(CN) – The federal government unveiled a program Wednesday to plant scores of milkweed plants across the nation to help monarch butterfly populations recover, but conservationists expressed skepticism that the program—while beneficial—could be cover for a refusal to list the iconic species as endangered this winter.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced an agreement with the University of Illinois-Chicago that calls for transportation and energy-related businesses to plant milkweed in and around their facilities, with the potential for millions of acres to be covered with the plant so instrumental to the propagation of the butterfly species.
“Completing this agreement is a huge boost for the conservation of monarch butterflies and other pollinators on a landscape scale,” said Aurelia Skipwith, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is a great example of how the Trump administration is working proactively with our partners in the energy, transportation and agriculture industries to provide regulatory certainty for industry while addressing the conservation needs of our most at-risk species.”
Monarchs lay their eggs solely in milkweed and the caterpillars that grow from those eggs feed exclusively on the leaves of the plant many consider a noxious weed.
Eradication of the milkweed plant in various development projects across the nation is widely considered to be the number one factor in the precipitous decline of the monarch butterfly population.
In fact, the most widely recognized butterfly in America is on the brink of extinction.
Western monarchs have declined by more than 99% since the 1980s. The eastern monarchs have dwindled by 80% over the same period.
Wednesday’s agreement indicates the federal government will encourage industry to voluntarily plant milkweed along roadways, farms and other lands impacted by development.
“This provides tremendous value to industry and will also yield big benefits to the monarch butterfly,” said Iris Caldwell, program manager of the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, which will administer the agreement. “Not only is this the largest CCAA [Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances] in history and completed on one of the fastest timelines thanks to our incredible partners, but it also represents an extraordinary collaboration between industry leaders and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that can serve as a model for addressing challenges to other at-risk species.”
Representatives from wildlife advocacy organizations acknowledge the plan is a step forward but remain skeptical that it is sufficient and that the agreement is little more than a ploy to help the Trump administration justify failing to list the monarch butterfly on the endangered species list.
“By itself, this is not enough to protect the monarch butterfly,” said Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This doesn’t address the effects of pesticides or the threats of climate change.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with reviewing whether a given species should be afforded protections under the Endangered Species Act, is due to give a decision on the monarch butterfly in December 2020.
It will be closely watched as the listing has the potential to put a dent in industry as developers, utilities and farmers could see significant impingement on their operations if the service says the butterfly population is declining due to incursions into its habitat.
Curry isn’t holding her breath.
“The Trump administration is run by industry,” she said.
Conservationists remain dubious that species will get a fair shake when the agencies are stacked with former industry lobbyists including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Andrew Wheeler, who spent much of his career as a lobbyist on behalf of coal companies.
This issue is particularly relevant to the monarch butterflies because as milkweed vanishes, the butterfly struggles. But the monarch is also harmed by the presence of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Neonicotinoids affect the central nervous systems of insects in harmful ways. While they prove reliable in keeping pests off crops, they also hurt pollinators.
While neonicotinoids are infamous for their role in the colony collapse crisis afflicting honeybees, their widespread use also hurts the monarch.
“They are lethal for the monarch larvae and they weaken the adult butterflies,” Curry said.
The wildlife advocate said that if the butterfly is listed as endangered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have to consult with the EPA about either limiting or ceasing the use of the insecticide. Such a meeting would be unlikely due to the alterations to the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act made by the Trump administration, she said.
Nevertheless, Curry said a listing would be critical to create a recovery plan and also keep the momentum going for the various organizations cropping up to raise awareness about the plight of the monarch butterfly.
“There is a lot of people really going out of their way to help the monarchs,” Curry said. “If the Trump administration finds a listing is not warranted, those conservation efforts could dry up.”