(CN) – The California monarch butterfly population has dipped to an all-time low, continuing a dismal trend that conservationists say could spell the end for the iconic, migratory insect and other pollinators throughout the nation.
Results from a survey count released Thursday confirm the dire situation for the orange-and-black butterfly, which has declined 99.4 percent in California since the 1980s.
The problem grew worse last November, when volunteers counted about 28,400 Western Monarch butterflies during a field survey – an 86 percent drop from the previous year, according to environmental organization Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
“Are we going to allow this to blink out?” Xerces Society researcher Emma Pelton asked during in an interview. “Something that has this incredible, unique migration – are we going to let that happen just because we can’t get our act together?”
The Xerces Society says the results are an educated guess that nonetheless indicate that the insect’s population has dipped below a threshold that could spell an end to the insect’s way of life.
Monarch butterflies are migratory insects, hibernating in warmer climates like Southern California during the winter.
Overwinter sites, where the butterflies lay their eggs, are in danger due to pesticides in home gardens and in the agricultural industry – but that is part of a much larger issue, Pelton said.
If it was just one species approaching this catastrophic population collapse, then the environment could potentially bounce back. But Pelton said monarch butterflies are the canary in the coal mine.
“It’s a multi-ripple effect. We’re often losing song birds who rely on insects and who pollinate flowers,” said Pelton. Although monarch butterflies are not the most effective pollinators, their decline could be a harbinger for the fate of similar insects.
There are some actions people can take to help – such as reducing pesticide use and planting early blooming flowers and milkweed to bolster breeding and migratory space.
Conservation advocates are pushing for monarch butterfly habitat protection near the Pacific Coast and working with farmers and land managers planting in the Central Valley to keep the butterfly’s breeding grounds thriving.
“I’m hopeful that this generation can do incredible things and the monarch will benefit,” said Pelton. “Focusing on saving the monarch butterfly is a laudable goal, and if we fail we will have made progress in other areas, like pesticides [reduction and] habitat restoration and that will benefit others.”