Monarch Butterflies Hit Hard This Winter

The latest news on the Monarch Butterfly is cause for deep concern.

Surveys conducted this winter in the Mexican Highlands, where the bulk of the Monarch population overwinters, has revealed that the Monarch population dropped 15% from December 2016 to December 2017.

The population now occupies only 2.48 hectares (ha) of land. Since the counts were initiated, the greatest amount of land occupied was 18.19 ha. The current area of occupation represents a decline of almost 90% since the highest count in 1996. The figure below provides details of the overwintering counts.

monarch overwintering population in mexico
The graph depicts ups and downs in the population over the years, which likely was normal for this species. However, the downward trend without recovery years is very concerning. Over the past six years, the three lowest populations ever were recorded!

Why are Monarchs Declining?

monarch on orange flower

Scientists have listed the main cause of the decline to include habitat destruction on both breeding and wintering habitat. Also, use of pesticides and herbicides on agricultural lands, and climate change impacts have hurt this species. More recent research in the U.S. points the finger at yet another issue: diminished sources of nectar-rich plants along the migratory pathway. Nectar is the fuel that Monarchs need on their incredible journey from Canada to their overwintering grounds. Monarchs need to refuel regularly. The loss of nectaring wildflowers along their migratory path makes it hard for Monarchs to restore their depleted energy reserves. It would be similar to the removal of about one half of all gas stations along our vacation route. We would have difficulty refueling and might run out of gas.

Why did the Monarch Population Decline this Year?

Many of you rejoiced last summer when you saw many adult Monarchs flying in southern Canada. It seemed to be a banner year, especially in Ontario and Quebec. Here at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we held hope that this would be a recovery year. So what happened to the population? One of the main culprits was the fall hurricanes that struck the southern U.S. this fall. Another culprit was the warmer than usual weather, which delayed migration in some parts of Canada and the United States. Both may have also contributed to reduced numbers in 2017.

Climate change brings extreme weather and increasing variability in weather. Climate change scientists predict increasing extreme weather events and more variability of weather. This will not likely be an advantage for the struggling Monarch population.

What is Being Done About the Decline?

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which is tasked with assessing species and recommending listing to the federal government, has recommended that the Monarch be listed as Endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. In Ontario, the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), the group of experts tasked with listing species under the province’s Endangered Species Act, will likely decide this year whether to list the Monarch as Endangered. An endangered listing will spark the creation of a Recovery Strategy with specific conservation action plans.

In addition to government action, there is plenty of good science happening for Monarchs. Maxim Larrivée’s team at the Montreal Insectarium and colleagues are researching whether milkweed is limited in Canada. Milkweed is the host plant that Monarch larvae depend on for survival, and there are several species of Milkweed in Canada. The results of this research will help us to understand the impact of changing land use on Monarch as well as whether we should target restoration of milkweed host plants to aid the recovery of Monarch.

Monarchs grouped

On other science news, a Canadian study led by Tyler Flockhart determined that habitat in Canada contributed a relatively high proportion of the overwintering Monarchs in Mexico, considering Canada comprises a small portion of the total range of Monarch. The research team looked at chemical isotope signatures from Monarchs on the overwintering habitat to determine where the butterflies were born in the previous summer and fall. They found that 12 per cent of the insects were born in the northwestern U.S. and Canadian Prairies, 17 per cent in the north-central States and Ontario, 15 per cent in the northeastern U.S. and the Canadian Maritimes.

What is CWF Doing for the Monarch?

It will take large scale restoration efforts to increase breeding and nectaring habitat. The Canadian Wildlife Federation is forming partnerships with right-of-way corridor (e.g. roadways and hydro-electric) managers to conduct habitat restoration trials, including:

We aim to document the cost and conservation benefits of restoring Monarch habitat, which will inform restoration practices at a large landscape scale.

CWF also continues to engage school groups and citizens like you to plant milkweed and native wildflowers to provide for Monarch during breeding and migration. Everyone can help to restore Monarch habitat!

Let’s Do More for the Monarch!

To compensate for ever increasing impacts of climate change and agricultural intensification, habitat restoration throughout breeding and overwintering habitat will need to overachieve conservation outcomes. In other words, restoration efforts will have to be bigger and better than ever before. It will take a concerted effort of federal, provincial, federal governments as well as private landowners to make this happen. Together, we have to knock it out of the park for the Monarch!

Learn how you can Help the Monarch!

CWF Appeals to Government of Canada to Take Immediate Action to Save Eels

Today, we (the Canadian Wildlife Federation and partners) submitted a letter to the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, asking for immediate conservation action for American Eel.

A catastrophic decline was first noticed for this species in Lake Ontario in the early 1990s, but unfortunately concrete actions to stop or reverse this decline have been excruciatingly sparse and slow.  The species is now considered Endangered both in Ontario and internationally, but it is not protected by the Federal Government.

Though sometimes feared, eels are completely harmless to humans.  They are culturally and spiritually important to many people, including the Indigenous people of eastern North America.  And they are commercially valuable – a large mature eel can fetch almost $50 in seafood markets.  The estimated 850,000 adult eels that once migrated from Ontario each year would be worth over $40 million, but unfortunately only a few thousand are left.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed the status of the species in 2012, and concluded that it was Threatened based on the best-available scientific information.  But under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, a species does not receive protection until Cabinet advises the Governor in Council to formally protect it.  For aquatic species, it is up to DFO to provide a recommendation to Cabinet on whether or not to list the species as legally protected.  Unfortunately, DFO has taken far too long to provide this advice.  The situation is complex and DFO did need to conduct extensive consultation, but their comment period closed two years ago yesterday. Meanwhile, Ontario is more than three years overdue on finalizing their plan for protecting and recovering eels under their own Endangered Species Act.

Since 2012, two things have happened.  First, inland eel populations have continued to decline precipitously.  The year the species was nationally assessed as Threatened, 60,000 juvenile eels returned to Lake Ontario.  This number dropped by 8,000 individuals each year, and last year only 6,700 eels returned.  If eels were a patient in critical condition, they would be about to flatline.

Second, most of the conservation actions that were underway in the previous decade have been abandoned. When the species was assessed as Threatened, the federal Minister of the Environment initially posted a response statement outlining what was being done to conserve the species until a listing decision was made.  It sounded good on paper, but unfortunately several of the proposed actions had already been abandoned when the statement was made, and many others never occurred.  The Canadian Eel Science Working Group had not met since 2011 and remains defunct.  A draft multi-jurisdictional management plan had been on the verge of signature since 2009, but has since been shelved.  Fisheries and Ocean’s eel barrier GIS tool has been mothballed, despite repeated requests by CWF to release it.

Aside from legal protection, federal funding for recovery actions is also not available because the species has not been listed under the Species at Risk ActCWF applied for Habitat Stewardship Program Species at Risk Prevention Stream funding in 2016, but was told that eel did not qualify because a listing decision was “imminent.”

Meanwhile, both DFO and Ontario have largely failed to require that hydropower produces take action to provide upstream passage for juvenile eels and to reduce the number of migrating adults killed by turbines, despite numerous legal means to do so (e.g., the Endangered Species Act and Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act in Ontario, and the federal Fisheries Act).  Occasionally, some mitigation has been provided, but only at a small number of facilities.

At this point, any further delays are equivalent to abandonment of American Eel.  If DFO takes its responsibility to protect aquatic species seriously, it must immediately resume the leadership roles that it abdicated over the past decade, and fulfill its obligation under the Species at Risk Act by giving Cabinet a recommendation as soon as possible.

Will Three Bat Species Get The Protection They Need?

bat blog

[PHOTO CREDIT: KAREN VANDERWOLF/NB MUSEUM]

A publication has just been released looking for comments on adding three bat species – the little brown myotis, northern myotis and the tri-colored bat – to the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

You may recall that these three bat species have been severely impacted by White-nose Syndrome, putting them at risk of disappearing from Canada. Some populations have declined by 90% in just three years.

In February 2012 an emergency assessment on the status of these bat species was performed to get them added as an endangered species to SARA immediately. A year later and with no developments, CWF created a national petition to get these species listed and with  2101 of our supporter’s signatures, we sent this to the Minister of the Environment.

So now, more than two years later from the emergency assessment, comments are being sought. If these three species get listed as Endangered, a national recovery strategy and action plan will be put in place to provide the framework for coordinated conservation efforts across Canada.

CWF will definitely be providing comments to help these bats get the protection they need. And we’re urging the public to do the same. These comments can be made directly to the SARA registry by emailing to SARAregistry@ec.gc.ca or by using this comment link. A simple “we don’t see bats around our home anymore, please add the species to the SARA list” will help. But if you’d like to provide in depth comments, there are guiding questions that will help in the public consultation document. The document will be posted here in the next few days. Comments must be submitted by August 18, 2014.