Shocking statistics show that Monarch butterfly populations in the U.S. have fallen roughly 90 percent since 1995. In response, a new petition is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the butterflies under the Endangered Species Act. The petitioners cite a loss of 165 million acres of the monarchs’ habitat and the loss of their chief food source, milkweed, due to herbicide-resistant farming practices (yes, Monsanto, we’re talking about you again) as the primary reasons for the dramatic decline of this iconic and formerly common species.

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The legal petition was submitted by the Xerces Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety and monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has been studying the butterflies since 1954. “Monarchs are in a deadly free fall and the threats they face are now so large in scale that Endangered Species Act protection is needed sooner rather than later, while there is still time to reverse the severe decline in the heart of their range,” said Dr. Brower. In the mid-1990s monarchs were estimated to number approximately one billion butterflies, but last winter the figure was placed at only 35 million, the lowest number ever recorded.

Related: Monsanto’s GM Crops as Causing Butterfly Populations to Decline

The petition outlines that the monarchs qualify for protection under all five ESA listing factors. In addition to habitat loss, it states the monarchs are threatened by global climate change, severe weather events, pesticides, and the spread of invasive species. But it is the loss of milkweed due to wide-scale herbicide use that is the biggest threat. “In the Midwest, nearly ubiquitous adoption of glyphosate-resistant, “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans has caused a precipitous decline of common milkweed, and thus of monarchs, which lay their eggs only on milkweeds.” The petition also notes that Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready soybeans to the Midwest region in 1996, and corn in 1998, coinciding with the dramatic population crash.

The USFWS can now issue a 90-day finding on the petition to investigate whether it provides enough information to demonstrate that federal protection is warranted. If it is found to be warranted, there would then be a one-year status review to determine whether or not to add the monarchs to the list of threatened species. The listing would make it illegal to intentionally kill monarch butterflies or modify their habitat without a permit, and would assign and protect critical habitat areas to allow for population recovery. Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director at the Xerces Society notes, “We need to take immediate action to protect the monarch so that it doesn’t become another tragic example of a widespread species being erased because we falsely assumed it was too common to become extinct.”


Photos by Joshua Mayer and Sids1 via Flickr