Monarch butterfly denied protection by Trump administration, despite growing extinction dangers

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Dec. 15, 2020 7:39 p.m. Updated: Dec. 15, 2020 9:56 p.m.

The monarch butterfly was turned down by the Trump administration on Tuesday when the government declined to use the powers of the Endangered Species Act to help save it from extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled against listing the monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the act — a decision that might have led to protections for the migratory insect’s habitat that for decades has been degraded or replaced by development.

Monarchs, when in their caterpillar stage, rely on milkweed for food. They also incorporate milkweed toxins making their own bodies taste terrible to birds, shielding them from being eaten.

Monarchs, when in their caterpillar stage, rely on milkweed for food. They also incorporate milkweed toxins making their own bodies taste terrible to birds, shielding them from being eaten.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

The monarch butterfly had been a common presence in Oregon, part of its West Coast range and one of the insect’s several ranges in North America. It’s still seen here but less frequently than in previous years, just as is the case everywhere that scientists have documented its crashing population.

Under the service’s “warranted but precluded” finding, the monarch butterfly is essentially placed in a queue, waiting to be considered again for listing under the ESA. This means the species will be reviewed each year to determine if its listing priority should change or until it is no longer a candidate.

The service said this assessment was one of its most intensive and rigorous species status assessments using the best available science. One of the many challenges was gathering information on a species that is found across the continent and beyond.

“In the monarch’s current condition, the probability that the Eastern North American population will reach the point that extinction is inevitable, is less than 10% in the next ten years,” USFWS Assistant Regional Director for Ecological Services Lori Nordstrom said. “The western North American population has a much higher probability of 60%-68% of reaching that point due to current threats over the next ten years.”

Related: Oregon Field Guide: Monarchs and Milkweed


Over the past two decades, the monarch butterfly has seen a steep decline in North America. The Western population, located mostly in California, is on the brink of extinction with more than 99% of its species gone.

The monarch butterfly faces many threats that are contributed by climate changes. Some of those threats include loss of quality overwintering habitat in California and Mexico, loss of availability of milkweed and nectar sources, and the widespread use of pesticides in the environment.

Currently, there are 161 species on the National Listing Workplan that are a higher priority than the monarch. These species include plants, insects, freshwater mussels, fish, birds and mammals. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision on which species to prioritize can be influenced by obligations to meet court orders and legal settlements.

A monarch butterfly on milkweed in bloom.

A monarch butterfly on milkweed in bloom.

Nick Fisher, OPB.

The service said it intends to propose to list the monarch as threatened or endangered in 2024 if the species still warrants being listed.

The monarch was proposed for listing in 2014 through a petition submitted by the Xerces Society, along with conservation groups Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety.

Center for Biological Diversity’s Senior Scientist Tierra Curry said delaying this decision may mean the species might go extinct waiting on the list.

“Forty-seven species have gone extinct waiting for their protection to be finalized. This decision continues the delay in implementing a national recovery plan which monarchs desperately need,” she said.

Xerces Society Executive Director Scott Black said he was disappointed with the ESA decision, but added that it’s better than the alternative, which is to not list the species at all.

“One thing I think [the] warranted and precluded [finding] will do is potentially get more people to step up to protect the monarch,” Black said.