By Michael Caduto
One of the joys of late summer is watching monarch butterflies, those delicate jewels of the air, flitting over our fields as they lay eggs on milkweed. After overwintering in the high peaks of mountains in Central Mexico, the eastern population of monarchs (those that are found east of the Rocky Mountains) undertake a seasonal migration of up to 3,000 miles. Eastern monarchs comprise nearly 99% of the entire North American population.
But the sighting of a monarch is bittersweet; their future is balanced on a knife’s edge. In some recent years we have seen virtually no monarchs. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that the population of these beloved butterflies has declined by 80 percent in the last 20 years, especially in the western United States. Despite their precarious status, in late 2020 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wait-listed monarchs for the Federal Endangered Species Act, thus kicking the can down the road and offering no protection for monarchs or their habitat.
A time in which children might grow up without monarch butterflies would be lonely, indeed. Whether future generations will marvel at monarchs, and experience the wonder of myriad other threatened and endangered species, is in our hands. The current global crisis of species endangerment and extinction, which has grown to epic proportions, is being caused by human activity, including climate change, habitat destruction, overhunting and overfishing, poaching, disease, conflicts with people, the introduction of exotic invasive species and pollution—including pesticides such as Roundup that severely impact monarch butterflies.
What happens when a species disappears and passes from memory? We don’t miss what we’ve never known or experienced. When was the last time you looked up at the sky and asked, “Where did the passenger pigeons go?” These iconic migrants once passed through the North Country by the millions. September 2021 marks 107 years since the last passenger pigeon in existence died at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
Today, when many people think of endangered and threatened species, they picture iconic examples like the Arctic Fox, Florida Panther, Vaquita, Polar Bear, Red Wolf and North Atlantic Right Whale. According to the EPA, more than 1,300 North American species of plants and animals are threatened or endangered. Other conservation and research organizations identify over 1,500 endangered US species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List now includes more than 28,000 species worldwide that are threatened with extinction—and the list is growing.
What about our own backyard? Here is a short list of some species deemed rare, threatened and endangered by the State of Vermont and the federal government in the greater Upper Valley region, including the watersheds of the Ottauquechee River, Black River and nearby Connecticut River:
Plants: Northeastern or Barbed-bristle Bulrush, Jesup’s Milk-vetch, American Ginseng, Creeping Juniper, Bog Aster.
Animals: Jefferson Salamander, Dwarf Wedgemussel, Cobblestone Tiger Beetle, Rusty Blackbird, Common Nighthawk, Wood Turtle, Blue-winged Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Little Brown Bat, Northern Long-eared Bat and Indiana Bat. (The Rusty-patched Bumblebee may already be extirpated and it has been more than 50 years since the Puritan Tiger Beetle was last seen.)
Don’t lose heart; it is possible to bring species back from the brink by treating the causes of extinction, protecting habitat and rebuilding a sustainable population. The Bald Eagle was nearly wiped out in the contiguous United States by the mid 1900s due largely to failed nesting caused by the pesticide DDT. After the EPA banned DDT in 1972, and following decades of painstaking efforts to reintroduce Bald Eagles throughout their historic range, the species eventually recovered and was removed from federal endangered species list in August 2007.
Monarch butterflies, which have an affinity for red clover, are important pollinator insects. (Photo: Michael J. Caduto)
What can you do?
- Call on the Biden administration and Vermont’s congressional delegation to give monarchs full protection as an endangered species. Ask them to ban pesticides that are contributing to precipitous declines in the populations of monarch butterflies, honeybees and other pollinator insects.
- Get involved with organizations and citizen groups that work to research and protect endangered species, such as the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (vtecostudies.org), Center for Biological Diversity (www.biologicaldiversity.org) Extinction Rebellion (rebellion.earth) and Sea Shepherd (seashepherd.org).
- Create backyard habitat and wildlife corridors to enable species movement.
- Report the sighting of threatened or endangered species to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
- Maintain (or plant) a stand of milkweed on your property on which monarch butterflies can lay eggs to reproduce. Establish a Monarch Waystation as part of Monarch Watch’s national efforts to preserve monarch butterflies: www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/
- Help to control and remove aquatic and terrestrial invasive species.
- Support Sustainable Woodstock and get involved in our programs and action groups fighting climate change, including the Energy & Transportation and Carbon Forest Action Groups. Attend our Climate Change and Sustainability film series (with Pentangle Arts). To learn more: www.sustainablewoodstock.org