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article imageStudy: Fate of Monarch butterfly may end up as 'quasi-extinction'

By Marcus Hondro     Apr 4, 2016 in Science
For some time scientists have raised alarm bells over the beautiful Monarch butterfly. Those bells just got a little louder with the release of a study that suggests the Monarch could actually become "quasi-extinct" in the not-too-distant future.
Monarch numbers decline
A contributor to the study was Iowa State University researcher John Pleasants, who has put a number on the odds of Monarch numbers falling so low that their migratory patterns will totally collapse; he believes there is a 11 to 57 percent chance that will occur.
So what will result if it does? The species no longer being seen in most places where it normally would be? With its annual migration to the U.S. and Canada from Mexico being ended? Is total extinction possible?
"We’re not saying it’s going to zero," Pleasants, an assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at ISU said. "But to a level that it will be hard for them to recover from."
Pleasants was part of a research team looking into the status of the Monarch and its food source milkweed. The study was from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California and the findings were reported in March
It has since been published in the journal Scientific Reports. Their report is titled: Quasi-extinction risk and population targets for the Eastern, migratory population of monarch butterflies.
Planting milkweed
The report says reintroducing as much milkweed to the North American landscape as possible needs to be done. Milkweed is the only plant the Monarch lays its eggs on and the only plant Monarch larva will eat.
The plant has declined drastically in North America, with some one billion milkweed plants wiped out. Along with weather, a major reason for the destruction is Roundup, a plant and weed-killing product from Monsanto Chemicals that has now been used by farmers and others for decades.
First marketed in 1973, Roundup eradicates weeds and allows commercial crops to grow unmolested. The main ingredient is glyphosate, and despite worldwide use, its effect on humans, other animals and the environment is still debated.
Crop seeds are genetically modified by Monsanto products to become Roundup Ready; modified, they can survive Roundup — weeds, such as milkweed, cannot. They are destroyed.
Mostly because of this, the Monarch population has dropped drastically and where once as many as one billion left Mexico for the north each year, numbers have fallen to as low as 65 million. Once Monarchs took up 18.5 acres of land in Mexico but three years ago it dropped to just 1.7 acres.
A bit of a rebirth brought the number up to 7 acres but Pleasants said they are aiming to get up to 15 acres. He does not advocate any movement to halt the use of Roundup, he said that "there is no way back."
However, he said that reintroducing milkweed requires and "all hands on deck effort," adding that "Every little bit counts, including people growing milkweed in their lawns and gardens."
There are movements to return milkweed to land where it is no longer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations are partnering with communities and community groups to work at planting milkweed in order to restore monarch numbers.
There are, Pleasants notes, 24 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands, such as grasslands and even roadside ditches, that milkweed can be planted upon. He said action has to be taken before the Monarch migratory traditions are halted.
"It’s hard being a butterfly," he said. "They need all the help they can get."
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