On July 21st, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the migratory monarch butterfly on its Red List. This means that the migratory monarchs – not the species as a whole – is in danger of extinction.

It is important to make this distinction of “migratory,” because not all monarch butterflies migrate. They are a tropical butterfly that needs warmer climates to survive. Because their host food (milkweed) is native to North America, the monarch butterfly found here migrates to where the most abundant supply of food is, and then goes back south for the winter to avoid cold temperatures.

This migration occurs in North America, but there are stable populations of the monarch elsewhere in the world. Until the mid-1800s, Danaus plexippus only existed in North America, but it began to be naturalized in the other areas. There are much smaller populations in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula in Europe.

Despite the monarch species being present in areas besides North America, the Eastern migratory population is larger than all the other locations put together. It is this group, as well as the Western population (west of the Rockies) that has been specifically targeted for the IUCN designation.

Further confusion about the listing is that it is by the IUCN and not the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which has been considering the monarch for listing under the Endangered Species Act as a Threatened Species. The IUCN is a global organization focused on conservation of nature and sustainable use of natural resources, headquartered in Switzerland.

This listing by the IUCN does not officially change anything here in the US. It doesn’t offer protection under the law, but it does call worldwide attention to the decline the migratory population has been in for the last 25 years or so.

In 2014, a petition was filed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service by the Xerces Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, and the late Dr. Lincoln Brower, for official listing as Threatened. There was much disagreement among scientists and enthusiasts alike, over whether the monarch should be listed.

In December of 2020, the USFWS issued a statement saying the listing was warranted but precluded. What this means is that there was evidence that the monarch should be listed, but that other species were more in need of protection at this time and due to limited resources, the agency would be focusing its efforts on those. They will continue to monitor the situation.

Since the introduction of the petition in 2014, multiple efforts have been made to help increase the population. Awareness of the effects of non-judicious use of pesticides and the unintended consequences of such use, the destruction of their habitat (milkweed plants), as well as climate change, has increased.

When I spoke with Dr. Lincoln Brower in his home in May 2017, we discussed the petition. At that time, I was not in favor of listing the monarch. I could not imagine what else we could be doing that we were not already doing. I also brought up that if monarchs were listed for protection under the law, wouldn’t milkweed also have to be protected, since that is the monarch’s only host plant? It was complicated.

Dr. Brower listened patiently to my reasoning. He then said something I had not thought about. “Would you not agree that bringing the petition forward in and of itself has been a positive thing, by spurring action toward conserving the species?” We both smiled and I realized that that may have been the petition’s main purpose all along.

So where does that leave us now? This statement by the IUCN may give more teeth to the argument for listing the monarch here in the US, as either Threatened or Endangered. It certainly will amplify conservation efforts, just as the petition did in 2014. Even if nothing official has changed here in the US, this is still a call to keep up the current efforts and keep spreading the word about the need to not only consider the monarch, but all pollinators.

As I always say, when you help the monarchs, you provide benefit for other pollinators. We need them, and they, as well as we, need a healthy environment. Let’s think beyond ourselves and try harder to preserve the world we live in for those who come after us. There are a lot of us, and we can make a difference. Let’s make a difference for the better.