What the Listing of the Monarch Butterfly as Endangered Really Means

By now you’ve probably heard the news: the monarch butterfly has been listed as an endangered species. The stunning butterfly species, once common across the United States and famous for its incredible migration, has suffered severe and alarming population declines in the last few decades. You might be thinking, “great news, the monarch will finally be protected.” What you might not realize, however, is that while this designation of the monarch as endangered is significant, it doesn’t mean the species will now immediately be legally protected in the U.S.

Here’s why. There are several different authorities both around the world and even within the U.S. that assign conservation status to species. They use different approaches to assess species’ populations and habitat and they often use different terminology (or the same terminology with different meanings). Importantly, not all carry legal weight. While this can be confusing it’s important to understand because it has real implications for what protections a species receives where.

The recent designation of the North American migratory monarch butterfly as endangered was done by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which uses a set of criteria and framework to assess the risk of extinction of wildlife species around the world. Their IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is used by many international organizations to inform and create plans for the conservation of global biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The recent listing of the monarch on the IUCN Red List applies specifically to the migratory monarch populations found in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. There are other non-migratory monarch populations in some parts of South America, Western Europe, Australia, and some Pacific and Caribbean Islands that are not included in the IUCN assessment.

Changing federal protections for monarch butterflies

What’s important to note is that the IUCN has no legal jurisdiction in the U.S. and their listing of the monarch doesn’t have any direct effect on federal protections. For a species to receive those protections here, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) must conduct its own Species Status Assessments that inform the decision on whether or not a species requires protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). USFWS has a different meaning for the terms “endangered” and “threatened” than the IUCN does and it has NOT listed the monarch as an endangered species—yet.

That said, USFWS hasn’t ignored the situation. Back in 2020, USFWS completed a Species Status Assessment of the monarch species and all its subspecies—including the subspecies North American migratory monarch and all the non-migratory monarch populations located in the US and other countries—and determined that protections for the species are “warranted” but are precluded by higher priority listing actions. This means that a final decision on the monarch is delayed while the agency prepares regulations for other species that are in a more critical state. We hope to hear the final USFWS decision on monarchs by 2024. Until then, the monarch remains a “candidate species” for listing—and protection—under the ESA.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

While the IUCN’s listing of the monarch doesn’t automatically mean that the butterfly will now be protected in the U.S., we cannot ignore this latest wake-up call. While we wait for the USFWS’s final decision, we must continue working on implementing conservation efforts that we know help the species, such as planting native milkweed as a food source for monarch caterpillars, planting native flowering plants to provide nectar to adult monarchs, ceasing the use of pesticides in the home and municipal landscapes, turning lawns into Gardens for Wildlife,  and protecting America’s rapidly disappearing grasslands (essential habitat for monarchs for reproduction and migration).

State and Federal Policy is crucial to support our monarch conservation work. Bills such as Recovering America’s Wildlife Act and the Monarch Act 2021 will provide the much-needed resources to implement key conservation efforts like the restoration and protection of native habitat for monarchs in breeding grounds and throughout their migratory pathway. You can support these bills by sending a letter to your state Senator.

What else can we do to help monarchs?