Ode to a Butterfly

Published March 19, 2019

Observing a monarch butterfly in the 1850s, Emily Dickinson wrote about its apparently aimless flitting, “Repairing everywhere, without design that I could trace, except to stray abroad on miscellaneous enterprise, the clovers understood.” She knew butterflies were somewhat mysterious. They still are.

Someone monitoring populations decided that monarch butterflies are in grave danger, requiring immediate action to save them. That warning gave rise to the “Monarch Joint Venture,” a massive partnership of ninety federal and state agencies, environmental industry groups, and universities “working together to protect monarchs and their migration.” They are the country’s foremost experts in monarch conservation and education, their effort primarily funded, of course, by taxpayers.

A 50-page North American Monarch Conservation Plan was drafted a decade ago, though it remained informal. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a website called “Save the Monarch Butterfly,” with a headline announcing that the monarch “is in trouble.” A coalition called “Save Our Monarchs” has distributed more than a million milkweed seed packets annually for several years, hoping to restore the most preferred habitat.

The Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has now published a 20-year “Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy,” outlining enormous habitat restoration work that must be done by 2038 if we are to continue enjoying the king of butterflies. The 300-page document describes how monarch populations have declined 80 percent over the last 20 years.

One of the conservation strategy’s stated goals is “to avoid a regulatory outcome (or minimize its impacts), such as monarchs becoming listed under the Endangered Species Act.” But the government has already been petitioned by environmental groups to list the butterfly as endangered, and has already said such listing might be warranted. A final decision will be made this summer, though the listing is already predictable.

For activists who seek to use the Endangered Species Act to regulate human activities, this is a dream come true. The document includes the usual language about achieving a viable species population “through a coordinated, landscape-scale habitat conservation approach.” That means government control over wide swaths of land, public and private. Americans generally resist such command-and-control, except where wildlife is concerned. People are always sympathetic cute critters like polar bears, baby seals, or bald eagles, but less so with insects. However, monarch butterflies may be the most recognizable and beloved insects. The report openly admits that could help achieve its goal: “Given the monarch’s strong public recognition and support, the plight of this species may help rally broader public conservation support…”

Monarch butterflies are indeed among nature’s most fascinating species, with their four-stage life cycle (egg, caterpillar, cocoon, and butterfly). They also go through four generations every year, the last with a much longer lifespan. In spring, that generation comes out of hibernation to find mates. They migrate north and east to find places to lay eggs, beginning stage one of the first generation. In about four days, the eggs hatch into caterpillars, which eat the host plant for a couple weeks, then attach themselves and spin the cocoon. In ten days, the metamorphosis is complete and new butterflies emerge, living only for 2-6 weeks. That cycle repeats twice more, but the fourth generation, hatched in late summer, migrates south to warmer climates like Mexico, and lives six to eight months before laying eggs to restart the process.

The 80 percent decline noted earlier is an interesting interpretation. It is primarily based on monitoring occupied acreage in Mexico, a very inconsistent measure. It compares 2017 populations against the highest year measured (1996). It went from 45 acres to about 6. But the 1996 acreage was more than double that of two years earlier, and the 2017 acreage was nearly four-times that of 2014. Fact is, monarch populations have gone up and down like a roller coaster for decades, suggesting something other than a steady and predictable decline in habitat.

Anyway, the butterflies themselves appear unaware of all this activity on their behalf. Just as the 20-year regulatory regime is about to begin, the butterflies have refused to cooperate. The 2018 results came in, and found a whopping 144 percent increase, the largest in over a decade.

Another poet, William Davies, was amazed in 1920 by a butterfly sitting contentedly on a rock, with no sweet nectar, or anything edible. He thought we might all learn something, the ability to “make my joy like this Small Butterfly, whose happy heart has power to make a stone a flower.” This might require more observation before we resort to regulation.

[Originally Published here]