After a year of pledges and promises, are we any closer to saving the Monarchs?

Thousands of acres of milkweed will be planted in the spring—but environmental groups say the focus on habitat isn’t enough.

By Willy Blackmore


With the White House’s Pollinator Research Action Plan and millions in donations and matching funds promised by the likes of Monsanto, 2015 was a landmark year for monarch butterfly conservation.

But with Friday’s news that Monsanto, DuPont, and the American Soybean Association—which are all tied to the drastic decline of monarch habitat across the U.S.—have signed on to yet another program promising to promote pollinator habitat conservation, you have to wonder what, beyond pledges and promises, is actually being done on the ground.

Much of the action that was promised last year—including the lofty White House goals to establish or improve 7 million acres of habitat and increase monarch populations to 225 million by 2020—will take time. Case in point: The first significant batch of habitat restoration projects that were awarded grants won’t be planted until this spring, and those plantings will take time to establish and mature. And environmental groups warn that habitat restoration won’t be enough to turn monarch populations around.

Still, grant money is making its way out into the world, and projects ranging from 10 to 10,000 acres in size have been funded across the country by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Monarch Joint Venture—three of the major groups facilitating the new national push on pollinator issues. All told, the various habitat restoration programs the three groups have funded amount to around 70,000 acres of new or improved habitat across the U.S.—from the Driftless Area along the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois to recent burn areas in California’s San Bernardino National Forest. With matching funds included, NFWF said the 22 projects it awarded grants to in 2015 will amount to just over $10 million in “total on-the-ground impact,” or, in other words, a whole lot of milkweed seed.

But planting more milkweed won’t necessarily offset what’s been lost over the past two decades, which have seen monarch populations drop from 1 billion butterflies down to fewer than 60 million. “There are myriad problems facing pollinators,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity. And while she readily acknowledges that lack of habitat is one of those problems, she’s less concerned with Monsanto’s conservation efforts than one of its best-selling products.

“The science is clear,” she added. “Glyphosate is the leading cause of the monarch decline. And with nearly 300 million pounds of it drenching soils in the U.S. and killing milkweed each year,” even the newly recharged efforts to restore and improve habitat won’t be able to make up the difference.

Monarch populations peaked in 1996, around the same time Roundup-ready varieties of corn, soy, and other commodity crops began to be widely adopted by American farmers. Prior to that shift, milkweed was able to grow rather benignly alongside the row crops that dominate agriculture along the Interstate 35 corridor, which cuts from Texas up through the Midwest to Duluth, Minnesota, more or less mirroring the primary monarch migration path. Milkweed is the only species of plant that female monarchs will lay their eggs on, and monarch caterpillars rely on it for food throughout the larval stage. In short, if there is no milkweed, there are no monarchs. Once farmers were able to spray all their Roundup-ready crops with glyphosate, killing weeds without killing, say, corn, American farmland suddenly stopped doubling as habitat for the butterflies. Currently, there are some 400 million acres of cropland in the United States.

There are other types of projects that have earned new grant money—programs focused on milkweed seed production, educational programs, and other conservation efforts that fall outside direct planting in areas historically frequented by the butterflies. Additional efforts are also being undertaken with the funding and support of other public and private organizations. In 2016, for example, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will invest $4 million across 10 states to provide food and habitat—or rather, a variety of wildflowers—for monarchs.

“Every little bit helps,” Burd said. “But on the large scale, if we’re going to be serious about recovering pollinators, then we have to address glyphosate use in this country.”