Endangered designation for monarch reignites conservation efforts, but Ontario remains hostile ground
Clarification: A previous version of this story referred to the Species at Risk Stewardship Program (SARSP) in reference to a provincial granting initiative that environmental groups have labelled as a "pay to slay" scheme. It is the Species at Risk Conservation Trust that is being called a "pay to slay" program.
The monarch butterfly, a striking orange and black pollinator, has fluttered into the hearts of many across the globe with its distinct appearance and extraordinarily long migratory journey. It has inspired numerous conservation campaigns to raise awareness about the insidious dangers of urban expansion and habitat loss, and triggered milkweed planting frenzies to bolster the numbers of a plant the monarch caterpillar depend on for survival.
Despite these efforts, alarm bells warning of a dire future for the monarch butterfly have been ringing for years.
Six years ago, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent committee of scientists and experts who use their expertise to recommend the conservation status of wild species to the federal government, recommended the butterfly be up-listed to endangered from its current listing of “special concern”. It’s a recommendation the federal government has yet to listen to. But that could soon change.
As of July 21, 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated the monarch as endangered. The IUCN is made up of over 1,400 government agencies, NGOs, academic institutions and Indigenous peoples’ organizations from around the world and is widely viewed as setting the gold standard for species designation. The agency's detailed assessments, and its Red List of Threatened Species—of which the monarch is now included—inform decision making and conservation efforts for species at risk across the globe. While the IUCN designation does not trigger any action from either the federal or provincial governments, it could place pressure on them to do so. The IUCN Red List now includes 147,517 species, of which 41,459 are threatened with extinction.
Dr. Ryan Norris, Ecologist and Associate Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph, has specialized in studying migratory species for over 16 years. Starting his research on the monarch butterfly in 2008, he has watched interest in the species ebb and flow numerous times. While the public’s attention may not always be directed at conservation efforts or wildflower planting blitzes, he says one constant is the worsening threats faced by the butterfly that are pushing it closer to extinction with each passing year.
Ryan Norris has been studying migratory species for close to two decades.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
If this species is ever lost to the world, it will take with it one of nature’s most awe-inspiring wonders—the annual migration of the eastern monarch.
In Canada there are two distinct groupings of the butterfly. Those that live in the western portion of the country, and those that live in the east. Separated only by the Rocky Mountains, the identical eastern and western monarchs live out very different lives. The western populations spend the cold winter months in groves of trees along the coast of Southern California to the Baja California Sur in Mexico.
Eastern monarchs— the species seen in Ontario and the vastly larger of the two groups in terms of population—make the 4,000 kilometre flight on paper-thin wings across the Americas to overwintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico. These monarchs spend their winters on oyamel fir trees that only grow at high altitudes between 2,400 and 3,600 metres. This very specific climate allows them to lower their body temperature enough to conserve energy, similar to hibernation. If the length of the journey for such a small butterfly was not amazing enough—it is the longest migration trajectory of any insect—more mind boggling is the fact that the butterfly that begins the journey, is not the same one that finishes it. The trip requires between three and four generations of butterflies to complete, meaning when one butterfly dies, its offspring bursts from the pupae to pick up the torch and carry on the trek, all based on pure instinct. According to scientists, the monarchs use an internal clock and the position of the sun in the sky to form an internal compass to direct itself on the trip.
It takes several generations of monarchs to complete the migration journey from start to finish.
“They’re going to the wintering grounds in Mexico to take advantage of the very narrow climate in the mountains in which they don’t freeze, but are cold enough that they don't expend too much energy,” Norris explains. But with the world experiencing record hot temperatures over the last decade—the last seven years have been the hottest on record—global warming threatens this delicate process. “If that shifts at all, either too hot or too cold, they’re in real trouble. And of course [regarding the eastern population] if they’re in trouble in Mexico then it’s serious trouble for everywhere else because they are all [overwintering] there,” Dr. Norris said.
It is estimated that between 1996 and 2014, population numbers of the eastern monarch have shrunk by 84 percent, while western numbers have been absolutely decimated, declining 99.9 percent from approximately 10 million in the 1980s to 1,914 in 2021, according to numbers from the IUCN.
Both populations of the crucial pollinator face threats of food and habitat loss through commercial and agricultural development, illegal logging, and climate change.
“The other relatively unknown factor is the role of [insecticides and herbicides] on monarchs, especially because they love milkweed in agricultural areas, and those are often the ones that have chemicals in them either through the seeds planted that are covered in neonicotinoids or by spraying,” Dr. Norris said. Neonicotinoids are commonly used in pesticides. Derived from nicotine, these chemicals, when ingested by a monarch, act on their central nervous system, overstimulating nerve cells, causing paralysis and eventual death.
There were small signs of hope last year as population numbers in the overwintering ground increased by approximately 35 percent, according to numbers from the World Wildlife Fund. But because insect populations have such a high reproduction and mortality rate, it can create significant population fluctuations year to year. What is clear, monarch population trends have been on a downward path for almost 30 years.
The number of monarchs seen at the overwintering grounds in Mexico has been on the decline for years.
(Monarchwatch.org: May 24, 2022)
Yet, there has been resistance from upper levels of government to apply the endangered label to the monarch. COSEWIC, the committee that advises the federal government, has been pushing for the designation since 2016, without success.
A spokesperson for Stephen Guilbeaut, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the minister is aware of the designation request for the monarch butterfly and has been conducting consultations with those who could be affected by any changes to the Species at Risk Act (SARA). These consultations concluded in 2018, and a decision on the designation is expected by June of next year. It’s unclear why such a recommendation is taking this long to come forward and whether the government will listen to COSEWIC. An endangered designation would mean the habitat for monarchs is protected by federal law and any development projects that could potentially damage such habitat would require a permit, which typically requires mitigation efforts. Based on the amount of time it is taking the government to reach a decision, the impacts of designating the monarch as endangered will be significant across Canada.
“The time this process takes varies with the number of people who may be affected,” the spokesperson told The Pointer.
A future designation could have the potential of placing a protective ring around areas known to be home to the plant critical to the monarch’s survival: milkweed.
The wildflower is highly toxic, but the monarch caterpillar has adapted to withstand the toxins. The plant’s poisonous nature also protects the caterpillar from being eaten by any predators. But in many areas this plant is being killed off. In agricultural areas it is sometimes removed due to the risk it poses to livestock or it is killed off beneath the chemical shower of insecticides that crops are often resistant to.
A monarch egg is seen on the underside of a milkweed leaf. The butterflies only lay one egg per leaf.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The PC government and Premier Doug Ford have repeatedly indicated that protecting the habitat of species at risk is not on their priority list. In fact, a scathing report from auditor general Bonnie Lysyk released last year found that government programs designed to protect species at risk were actually doing the opposite.
“The purpose of species at risk legislation is to serve as the last line of defence when other programs have been ineffective in conserving nature or have directly contributed to biodiversity loss. The Environment Ministry is not, however, acting in the best interests of species and their habitats,” Lysyk’s audit exposed. “The Environment Ministry’s systems and processes for approvals facilitate and enable harm to species at risk and their habitats.”
And that was only the beginning. Among the audit’s findings:
the committee tasked with advising the government on implementing species at risk law is dominated by industry stakeholders “whose interests can be contrary to protecting species at risk and their habitats”. At the time of her audit, ten of the fifteen members of the committee worked for industry associations or companies; half of those ten are registered lobbyists, including members of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, the Ontario Home Builders Association and the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association
the Province has never denied a permit to harm species at risk or their habitat; permits to harm species at risk have increased more than 6,000 percent since 2008. Most of the permits are approved automatically
the committee which recommends species to be listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern—the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), the provincial equivalent of COSEWIC, the group that advises the federal government—did not have enough members appointed to function for two years, creating a backlog of 46 species in need of assessment
the Province does not perform inspections to ensure contractors and developers are implementing the mitigation measures proposed to protect species at risk; the auditor general found examples where mitigation measures put in place as part of the permitting process are ignored, leading to direct harm to endangered species
permits for development are fast-tracked while those for conservation work are delayed. The auditor found examples where delays likely contributed to the Massassauga rattlesnake becoming locally extinct in one area
the PC government dismissed members from COSSARO with no explanation, despite their willingness to continue serving, and replaced them with appointees who lack necessary experience or expertise. The Minister of Environment appointed five individuals in 2019/2020 who were not screened or recommended by staff.
On top of all that, the government had no mechanisms in place to judge its effectiveness at protecting species at risk; there is no study of the cumulative impacts of development in Ontario on species at risk; and the government has said it has no plans to study these items. The PCs declined to accept a number of Lysyk’s recommendations to fix the holes in the sinking ship that is species protection in Ontario. When asked about this complete abdication of responsibility, the government brushed these criticisms aside, choosing instead to mislead residents about the work being done.
Because of this history, it does not bode well for the monarch butterfly in Ontario following the IUCN designation. Premier Ford has made no secret of his close connections to the development industry and any enhanced protection for this species would only spell more potential headaches when it comes to major development projects if those lands are relied on by the monarch. It could be particularly troublesome for major projects like the Highway 413—currently amidst the federal Environmental Impact Assessment process for its potential impact on species at risk—and the Bradford Bypass. Investigations by The Pointer have found these two projects alone could arm the habitat of more than 40 species at risk.
A spokesperson for David Piccini, the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks did not directly respond when asked to whether the government would consider listing the monarch as endangered following the IUCN listing, noting that COSSARO last assessed the monarch in 2020, classifying it as “special concern”, a designation that carries no protections. The spokesperson also pointed to the Species at Risk Stewardship Program (SARSP), which provides up to $4.5 million in annual funding for projects led by individuals, communities and groups across the province for projects protecting species at risk. Through this program the government has provided funding to more than 80 projects supporting monarchs and other pollinators, the spokesperson said.
But environmental groups are arguing the government is making it easier to destroy species at risk habitat. A new program, the Species at Risk Conservation Trust, has been heavily criticized by environmental groups which have labelled it a “pay to slay” program. The fund allows developers to pay a fee instead of implementing mitigation measures to protect the habitat of species at risk. While those dollars are used for conservation and protection efforts, there is no guarantee the money will be used to help in the area where the destruction is happening or if it will help the same species.
“By making it quick and easy, the fund provides a perverse incentive for destruction,” says Dr. Anne Bell of Ontario Nature in a December 2021 press release. “It’s blood money from those who want to rip up or pave over the forests, fields and wetlands where species at risk persist.”
Parts of the “Monarch Region” are currently protected by the Mexican Government, known as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
This lack of compassion from upper levels of government places an increased significance on local conservation efforts to be the last line of defence in the fight to protect vulnerable species like the monarch.
“The IUCN designation is important for the attention it brings to the species. The layperson may not know about the legal or political hurdles needed to protect the butterfly within Canada, but it gets them talking about it more and hopefully eventually pushes the governments to take action,” says Stephanie Keeler, a Community Program Coordinator at the Riverwood Conservancy (TRC) in Mississauga.
Keeler studied biology and geography at the University of Guelph, and has worked with TRC for almost four years. She leads a variety of outdoor programs offered by the organization, working with people of all ages and backgrounds to encourage them to get immersed in nature.
Stephanie Keeler (top) with The Riverwood Conservancy explains how insects are categorized. In the bottom image she holds an identification guide next to a summer azure. As seen in the guide, many species look very similar so it is often necessary to briefly capture a butterfly in order to identify accurately.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
TRC’s program offerings include a butterfly identification walk right in the heart of Mississauga. They have been working with the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC) to raise awareness about the importance of butterflies and other pollinators within our ecosystems.
The CVC is in its fourth year of the five-year Butterfly Blitz program that was started to encourage residents and citizen scientists to get more involved with nature and conservation. Running from May 14 to September 17, anyone can sign up to send in their photos of butterflies seen anywhere within Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon along the Credit Valley to assist with monitoring efforts. As of July 28, the CVC has received approximately 1,150 submissions accounting for 63 different species. Prizes are awarded for various accomplishments, like best image or rarest species.
Outdoor education is a highly effective way to get people more involved and emotionally invested in conservation.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Programs like those offered by the TRC and CVC can create an increased awareness among the urban population of the sheer amount of life that exists around them, potentially making them more likely to consider that life when making choices in the future. Avoiding products known to use insecticides and herbicides, or converting grass lawns that don’t offer any support for native species to wildflower gardens are small ways people can make a big difference.
The most talked about solution for residents to help the populations survive is to plant milkweed, although the species and favourability are often not mentioned. It is important to research which plant will survive in your area being planted, and how effective it will be at supporting monarchs.
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