Over the past 20 years, North America's population of monarch butterflies has declined by a catastrophic 90 percent, a plight that may be caused by pesticides and loss of the once-vast acres of wild milkweed that are the creatures' food source. But now with some fearing that the butterflies - many of which migrate 3,000 miles from Canada and the U.S. to Mexico - are in danger of vanishing completely, the federal government may finally intervene.
On Dec. 29, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is launching a scientific review to determine whether the monarch butterfly should be protected by law under the Endangered Species Act, a 1973 law designed to protect species from becoming extinct.
The law not only bans the killing designated species or harming it in other ways, but it also requires federal officials to work with state and local agencies to come up with a recovery plan for restoring its numbers. Additionally, the federal government can protect habitat that's critical to the species. Reuters reports that the review will take a year to complete.
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The review was launched in response to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and renowned monarch scientist and University of Florida professor emeritus Lincoln Brower, who has been studying the species for 60 years and has published more than 200 scientific papers on the subject.
In a press release, the Xerces Society said the North American population of monarchs has declined from 1 billion in 1996 to just 35 million this past winter, the lowest number ever recorded.
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Xerces tied the decline of monarchs to the widespread planting of genetically modified corn and soybean crops in the U.S. Midwest, where most of the butterflies are born. The GMO plants are designed to be immune to an herbicide that kills off milkweed.
Over the last two decades, monarchs have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat - an area roughly the size of Texas. In addition, butterflies are threatened by climate change, drought, urban sprawl and logging on their Mexican winter range.