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Monarch butterflies named endangered on species ‘red list’

The migrating butterfly is 2 steps from extinct on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list.

A monarch butterfly is pictured at the Sanctuary of El Rosario in Mexico. Monarchs, which migrate thousands of miles each year, were added last week to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "red list" of threatened species. They were labeled "endangered," which is two steps from extinct. (Enrique Castro/AFP/Getty Images)

The monarch butterfly fluttered a step closer to extinction last week as scientists put the orange-and-black insect on the endangered list because of its dwindling numbers.

“It’s just a devastating decline,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who was not involved in the new listing. “This is one of the most recognizable butterflies in the world.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature on Thursday added the migrating monarch butterfly for the first time to its “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered” — two steps from extinct.

The group estimates that the population of monarch butterflies in North America has declined between 22 percent and 72 percent over 10 years, depending on the measurement method.

“What we’re worried about is the rate of decline,” said Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at Michigan State University. “It’s very easy to imagine how very quickly this butterfly could become even more imperiled.”

Haddad, who was not directly involved in the listing, estimates that the population of monarch butterflies he studies in the Eastern United States has declined between 85 percent and 95 percent since the 1990s.

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In North America, millions of monarch butterflies undertake the longest migration of any insect species known to science.

After wintering in the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies migrate north, breeding multiple generations along the way for thousands of miles. The offspring that reach southern Canada then begin the trip back to Mexico at the end of summer.

“It’s a true spectacle and incites such awe,” said Anna Walker, a conservation biologist at New Mexico BioPark Society who was involved in determining the new listing.

A smaller group spends winters in coastal California, then disperses in spring and summer across several states west of the Rocky Mountains. This population has seen an even more steep decline than the Eastern monarchs, although there was a small bounce back last winter.

Emma Pelton of the nonprofit Xerces Society, which monitors the Western butterflies, said the butterflies are threatened by loss of habitat, climate change and increased use of weed-killing and insect-killing chemicals in agriculture.

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“There are things people can do to help,” she said, including planting milkweed, a plant that monarch larvae, or caterpillars, depend upon.

Nonmigratory monarch butterflies in Central America and South America were not designated as endangered.

The United States has not listed monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act, but several environmental groups say it should be listed.