Hand-raising monarch butterflies in the midst of a global extinction crisis, Laura Moore and her neighbors gather round in her suburban Maryland yard to launch a butterfly newly emerged from its chrysalis. Eager to play his part, 3-year-old Thomas Powell flaps his arms and exclaims, “I’m flying! I’m flying!”
Moore moves to release the hours-old monarch onto the boy’s outstretched finger, but the butterfly, its wings a vivid orange and black, has another idea. It banks away, beginning its new life up in the green shelter of a nearby tree.
Monarchs are in trouble, despite efforts by Moore and countless other volunteers and
organizations across the United States to nurture the beloved butterfly. The Trump administration’s new order weakening the Endangered Species Act could well make things worse for the monarch, one of more than 1 million species that are struggling around the globe.
Farming and other human development have wiped out huge patches of native milkweed habitat, cutting monarch butterfly numbers by 90 percent over the past two decades.
With its count falling 99 percent to the low tens of thousands in the Western United States last year, the monarch is under government consideration for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. But if the Trump administration’s latest action survives threatened lawsuits, there will be sweeping changes to how the government provides protections and which creatures receive them.
Administration officials say the changes, expected to go into effect next month, will reduce the rules while still protecting animals and plants. But conservation advocates and Democratic lawmakers say the overhaul will force more to extinction, delaying and denying protections.
The administration will for the first time have the option to estimate and publicize how much money it would cost to save a species before any decision on whether to do so. Monarchs compete for habitat with soybean and corn farmers, whose crops are worth billions of dollars each year.
Another coming change will end protections for creatures newly listed as threatened. Conservation groups say that will leave them unprotected for months or years, as officials, conservationists and industries and landowners hash out each species’ survival plan, case by case.
The rule also will limit consideration of threats facing a species to the “foreseeable” future, which conservation groups say allows the administration to ignore the growing harm of global warming. Along with farming, climate change is one of the main drivers of the monarch’s threatened extinction, disrupting an annual 3,000-mile migration synced to springtime and the blossoming of wildflowers. In 2002, a single wet storm followed by a freeze killed an estimated 450 million monarchs in their winter home in Mexico.
A decision on whether the monarch will be listed as threatened is expected by December 2020.
In the meantime, volunteers like Moore grow plants to feed and host the monarchs, nurture caterpillars, and tag and count monarchs on the insects’ annual migrations through United States. While wildlife experts encourage the growing of milkweed, some are doubtful about the common practice of raising monarchs from their chrysalis out of concern it allows less healthy butterflies to survive.
For Moore, a tutor who has turned her 20-by-20-foot yard over to milkweed, fleabane and other butterfly nectar and host plants, the hope is that grass-roots efforts of thousands of volunteers loosely connected in wildlife organizations, schools and Facebook groups will save the monarch, at least.
“People having an interest in it might reverse it. It’s encouraging,” said Moore, who also raises extra milkweed to give away. If the monarch can’t be saved, she said, “it would be kind of sad. What it would say about what we’re able to do.”