If someone tells you to picture a butterfly, odds are you picture the monarch butterfly. The telltale black-and-orange colors are among the most universally recognizable of any insect in the world, making it one of the very few bugs that most people are cool with. And we hope you’ve enjoyed your time with them, because it’s getting a little perilous. Scientists have officially added the monarch butterfly to the endangered species list.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature doesn’t take these steps lightly, since labeling a species “endangered” means serious and sometimes dramatic steps must be taken to repopulate the world with monarch butterflies before it’s too late. Rough numbers are difficult to come by, but scientists believe the population of monarch butterflies in North America has declined between 22% and 72% over the last decade — a free fall conservationists are desperate to reverse. In the eastern U.S. — which was teeming with monarch butterflies as recently as the 1990s — the population has fallen between 85 percent and 95 percent over the last 25 years or so.
The reasons for the dwindling numbers are myriad. Their spectacular annual migration covers thousands of miles, the longest of any insect species known to science, but they are suffering from the loss of habitat to farming and urbanization, the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides and, of course, the scourge of climate change.
There is some silver lining to the news. First of all, monarch butterflies in Central and South America were not listed as endangered. Second: We have time to act. Much of the decline in butterflies can be blamed on big, grassy suburban lawns that are pretty to look at but are effectively deserts for butterflies. Scientists suggest planting milkweed, a pretty flowering plant that caterpillars feed on. Not only will you be helping pull a species back from the brink of extinction, your yard will get both a flowery boost and an extra dose of butterflies.
More good news? Tigers, which are on the endangered species list, have experienced a huge bounce back, with a 40 percent population increase since 2015. Tigers aren’t out of the woods yet, but the new numbers are encouraging proof that the international union’s efforts can make a difference.