The Xerces Society May 16, 2008 - The Xerces Society

National Butterfly Center Gets Reprieve—But Border Wall Will Impact Much More

The building of a wall along the United States–Mexico border has become a topic of debate, in both private and public spheres. The majority of Americans (58%) oppose the border wall for a variety of social, economic, and environmental reasons. Political disputes over border wall funding also led to the record-breaking 35-day government shutdown from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019—which negatively affected hundreds of thousands of people and the services of several federal agencies—and still rumble on within Washington, D.C., as this blog is published. All of these are significant concerns, but as a conservation organization, the Xerces Society’s focus is on the border wall’s environmental implications.

Recently, debate about the potential environmental impacts of the border wall has been in the spotlight because construction would impact the National Butterfly Center, near Mission, Texas. The Xerces Society opposed putting the wall across the Center, and joined in calling for the federal government to reconsider moving forward with construction. The good news is that the Center appears to have a reprieve: The government funding bill approved by congress includes a ban on building the wall through several sites in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, including the National Butterfly Center.

The National Butterfly Center has been at the center of debate over the border wall. The threat of construction has apparently been lifted thanks to a clause in the government funding bill passed by Congress. (Photos: Xerces Society / Ray Moranz)

The National Butterfly Center has been at the center of debate over the border wall. The threat of construction has apparently been lifted thanks to a clause in the government funding bill passed by Congress. (Photos: Xerces Society / Ray Moranz)

However, the National Butterfly Center is a microcosm of what will happen on a larger environmental scale as a result of the border wall—even if only parts of the wall are built. And with news reports that President Trump will sign the funding bill today and declare a national emergency, this debate becomes more timely and urgent.

Over the past few decades, the Department of Homeland Security has already constructed 605 miles (974 kilometers) of border barriers. Because the total length of the continental border is 1,954 miles (3,145 km), more than 1,300 miles (2,090 kilometers) of barrier could still be built if the current administration has their way. In preparation, the DHS has been waiving all regulations that could hinder wall construction due to environmental, archeological, or cultural reasons—a list of some 27 acts including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—setting a dangerous precedent of eroding key protections.

In addition to the policy implications of the border wall, there are other serious potential impacts for wildlife—especially species that need to move across the region to access habitat or to find mates. For them, the political construct of an international border has no meaning, but nevertheless the construction of a wall could be catastrophic. For instance, the jaguar (Panthera onca) and ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) are already threatened with extinction, and the border wall would add an additional stressor.

Similarly, some people have expressed concern about monarchs and other butterflies being unable to migrate or move over the wall. Although that is not a concern for most bee or butterfly species (including monarchs), there are some species that are low-flying, and whose movements could be hindered by a border barrier. The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino) is one example. The Quino checkerspot’s known populations straddle the border between California and Mexico and would be divided by the wall.

Quino checkerspot butterfly

The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino) is a low-flying species that has known populations that straddle the border between California and Mexico and would be divided by the wall. (Photo: USFWS)

The real issue, however, is the loss of local habitat due to construction of the wall. New barriers and associated infrastructure will directly destroy tens of thousands of acres in some of the most diverse habitats in North America—undoubtedly negatively affecting local species. Although many media images have shown tall, narrow concrete and steel barriers, the border wall will impact a much wider swath of land—including the construction of service roads and associated buildings, and clearing vegetation on both sides of the barrier for visibility and ease of access. This is based partly on what has already occurred: the 605 miles of already-existing border barriers are serviced by 4,970 miles (8,000 kilometers) of roads, as well as thousands of miles of undesignated routes created by off-road patrol vehicles. Indeed, a recently published paper in Bioscience details the potential impacts of construction of the wall and associated infrastructure, including: the elimination or degradation of natural vegetation, killing animals both directly and through habitat loss, fragmenting habitats (thereby subdividing populations into smaller, more vulnerable units), and reducing habitat connectivity. According to the Bioscience paper, the wall could also change wildfire patterns.

The wall and associated infrastructure will also include nighttime lighting, which can disorient moths and other night flying insects that are vital food sources for species from birds to bats. Meanwhile, already-existing spans of border fence have “acted as dams in rainy season flash floods,” as detailed in this piece by National Geographic—notably causing damage to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona in 2008. The Bioscience paper also discusses this topic, raising concerns of soil erosion and the alteration of hydrological processes (e.g., floods) if the border barrier is expanded.

The U.S.-Mexico border wall will cut across the landscape, bisecting landforms and habitats. This section is in Arizona; Mexico is to the left of the fence and access road. (Photo: Miguel Angel de la Cueva, Wikimedia.)

It is not just any land that will be impacted. In addition to family farms and other private property, the wall will negatively affect many areas that are species-rich and ecologically sensitive. Indeed, many animals and plant populations will be threatened if the wall is built. The Bioscience paper estimates that, if completed, the administration’s plan will bisect the geographic ranges of 1,506 native terrestrial and freshwater animal and plant species, including 62 species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The 1,500+ species listed in the paper include 199 invertebrates (178 insects, 11 snails and slugs, 9 aquatic mollusks, and 1 spider). Unfortunately, the paper likely underestimates the number of insects and other invertebrates that will be impacted, as the data is simply not available to assess most invertebrate species. Insects and other invertebrates are the least well-studied animals, and their ranges are not well-documented. We do know, however, that on a global level insects outnumber mammals 25:1—there are 40,000 documented mammal species and almost 1 million documented insects. Considering that 163 mammal species are documented within the footprint of the border barrier area, it is not a stretch to estimate that there could be over 4,000 insect species within the same area. (This estimate does not include invertebrates like mollusks and crustaceans.) Especially when you consider that the lands along the border also have relatively high butterfly and bee diversity, it is clear that the border wall’s impact on insects could be substantial.

"There are many reasons to oppose the wall along the southern border—including the loss of habitat for some of our smallest and most important animals." - Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces Society Executive Director

Click for a higher resolution, shareable image.

In short, there are many reasons to oppose the wall along the southern border—including the loss of habitat for some of our smallest and most important animals. Accordingly, scientists and conservationists are adding their voices in opposition to the proposed border wall. Defenders of Wildlife organized an effort to encourage scientists to speak up on this issue. As part of that effort they helped publish the Bioscience article, which states:

“We urge the US government to recognize and give high priority to conserving the ecological, economic, political, and cultural value of the US–Mexico borderlands. National security can and must be pursued with an approach that preserves our natural heritage.”

This paper has been signed by more than 2,900 scientists, including some from the Xerces Society.

In the face of mounting environmental challenges, the Xerces Society will continue to focus our attention on protecting, restoring, and enhancing habitat for invertebrates in all landscapes—urban and rural, farms and cities, roadsides and wildlands—so we can maintain invertebrate biodiversity for generations to come.

Written by Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces Society Executive Director.

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Monarch Butterflies in Western North America in Jeopardy

Population of monarchs overwintering in California at lowest level ever recorded


Media Contacts:

Emma Pelton, Endangered Species Conservation Biologist; emma.pelton@xerces.org, (971) 533-7245

Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director; sarina.jepsen@xerces.org, (971) 244-3727


PORTLAND, Ore.; Thursday, 1/17/19—The population of monarch butterflies overwintering in California has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded. Surveys done by volunteers with the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count found only 28,429 butterflies, an 85.2% fall from the previous year—and a 99.4% decline from the number of monarchs in the state in the 1980s. The results of the count were released Thursday by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, along with a Western Monarch Call to Action.

“To picture what this means for monarchs, imagine that the population of Los Angeles had shrunk to that of the town of Monterey,” said Emma Pelton, a monarch conservation expert with the Xerces Society.

Faced with these alarming numbers, Pelton has worked with monarch scientists at institutions across the West to develop the Western Monarch Call to Action, a five-point rapid-response action plan to rescue the western population of the monarch butterfly.

The most immediate priority in the coming weeks is to ensure monarchs have nectar to fuel their flight and milkweeds on which they can lay their eggs when they leave the overwintering sites. This is something that everyone in California can help with right now: plant early blooming native flowers and milkweed to restore breeding and migratory habitat. Monarchs will use plants growing in gardens, parks, along railroads, on farms and anywhere else they can find them.

“It’s easy to give up when faced with news like this,” said Pelton. “But doing nothing is not an option.”

Of equal importance to ensuring monarchs have flowers is protecting their overwintering sites. Each year, the groves they shelter in are destroyed or damaged by development or inappropriate tree trimming. This needs to be halted and the groves given adequate protection and management, so that monarchs have a place to return to next fall.

There are important questions that remain unanswered about monarchs, such as a detailed understanding of where they go right after they leave the overwintering sites. People can watch out for monarchs and report what they see to the online Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project to help inform conservation strategies.

Other important actions include reducing pesticide use, so monarch have clean places to feed and breed, and identifying and enhancing areas across the western states where monarchs fly to during the summer.

Many state and federal agencies, farmers, nonprofits and individuals are increasing their conservation efforts, but more work needs to be done.

“Saving the western monarch migration is not something that the Xerces Society can do alone” said Sarina Jepsen, director of the Xerces Society’s endangered species program. “There are things that can be done by anyone in any place. We urge you to join us and our colleagues in the western monarch science and conservation community in taking meaningful, swift action to help save western monarchs.”

The Xerces Society is taking action to protect the western population of monarchs. Xerces is pushing for protection of overwintering sites and working with partners to restore overwintering habitat near the coast. Also, working with farmers, natural area managers, California cities and others, we are planting and restoring habitat across the Central Valley—a key breeding and migration area for monarchs. In the last 18 months, we have restored 20 miles of hedgerows on farms, and in the coming year, we will be adding another 10 miles to further re-connect habitats. These hedgerows provide essential nectar sources, milkweed for breeding, and unsprayed refuge.

Xerces staff are working with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Center in California to conduct planting trials of milkweed and monarch nectar plants to develop best practices for establishing these plants in the state.

“Can we promise that monarchs will recover and fill California’s skies again?” said Xerces Society Executive Director Scott Hoffman Black. “Sadly, no. But we are not going to be the generation that witnessed this loss and stood by and did nothing.”

It is urgent that we focus on conservation across California and the west if we hope to have the best chance to save the western monarch migratory phenomenon, the overwintering aggregations and the tourist dollars that benefit California from visitors coming to see clustering monarchs.

The monarch population in eastern United States and which migrates to Mexico has declined by more than 80% in the last 20 years, but has not suffered the same alarming fall in numbers this year.

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For More Information

To read the Western Monarch Call to Action and download a copy, visit savewesternmonarchs.org.

Photos available for media use are below.

Long-term data about the number of monarch butterflies in western North America, gathered by the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, is at westernmonarchcount.org.

Help expand knowledge of monarchs and their breeding areas in the western US by contributing sightings to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project, at monarchmilkweedmapper.org.

Resources, fact sheets and guidelines from the Xerces Society

About The Xerces Society

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Established in 1971, the Society is a trusted source for science-based information and advice. We collaborate with people and institutions at all levels and our work to protect monarchs, bumble bees and many other species encompasses all landscapes. Our team draws together experts from the fields of habitat restoration, entomology, botany and conservation biology with a single passion—protecting the life that sustains us. To learn more about our work, please visit xerces.org or follow us @xercessociety on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.


Photos for Media Use:

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Record Low Number of Overwintering Monarch Butterflies in California—They Need Your Help!

Working at a conservation nonprofit means that we often come across bad news, but the results from this winter’s Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count left us shocked: an all-time record low of 28,429 monarchs at 213 sites.

This number is an 86% drop from the previous count done at Thanksgiving 2017, when 192,668 monarchs were counted at 263 sites (comparing only the sites monitored in both years)—and a dizzying 99.4% decline from the numbers present in the 1980s (Schultz et al. 2017). In short, only one of every 160 monarchs present in the 1980s exists today.

For every 160 monarchs there were in the 1908s, there is now only one.

Click to enlarge this image.

The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count began when concerned scientists and citizens started counting overwintering monarchs 22 years ago—worried that monarch numbers were dropping. This long-term community-science effort continues to provide critical information that is used to track the size of the western monarch population. These are the monarchs that overwinter in coastal California, with smaller numbers in Arizona and northern Baja, Mexico (this is a separate migration from monarchs in the eastern US that head to Mexico). Only through the participation of so many dedicated volunteers can we continue to be able to capture the status of the California overwintering population and document this precipitous decline.

This year’s low estimates were foreshadowed by reports of low numbers of the western monarch breeding population observed during the summer in western states and preliminary Thanksgiving count data. The drop between the 2017 and 2018 counts may be attributable to late-season storms and a severe wildfire season in California and elsewhere in the West. And while this year’s numbers are alarming, the real issue is the longer-term decline of the butterfly due to stressors such as habitat loss and degradation (including nonnative plants), pesticides, and climate change. There are also other pressures on the migratory cycle of the monarch that we still have yet to fully study or comprehend.

There are no quick fixes to solve all these large and complex forces, but we can still take actions NOW to help save the western monarch population. Research into monarch losses is active and ongoing, but the depth and abruptness of the recent declines means that we need to act now based on the available evidence. The western monarch population may collapse completely if we wait until all of the answers are fully in focus. Urgent action is crucial because research has suggested that a population as low as the one we have seen this year may result in a partial or total collapse of the western monarch migration.

Western Monarchs in Decline

Although the amount of overwintering sites being monitored has increased in the past eleven years, the amount of monarchs observed during that time has dropped significantly. Click to enlarge this image.

In an effort to save the western monarch migratory population, the Xerces Society developed the Western Monarch Call to Action, a set of rapid-response conservation actions that, if applied immediately, can help the western monarch population bounce back from its extremely low 2018–19 overwintering size. We recognize and support longer-term recovery efforts in place for western monarchs such as the WAFWA plan and MJV implementation plan. This call to action, however, identifies steps that can be done in the short-term (the next few weeks or months up to one year), to avoid a total collapse of the western monarch migration and to set the stage for longer-term efforts to have time to start making a difference.

The Xerces Society is taking action for monarchs across the United States, with a special focus on restoring breeding and overwintering habitat for the western population in California. We are pushing for protection for overwintering sites and working with partners to restore overwintering habitat near the coast.

Also, working with farmers, natural area managers, California cities and others, we are planting and restoring habitat across the Central Valley—a key breeding and migration area for monarchs. In the last 18 months, we have restored 20 miles of hedgerows on farms, and in the coming year, we will be adding another 10 miles to further re-connect habitats. These hedgerows provide essential nectar sources, milkweed for breeding, and unsprayed refuge.

Xerces staff are working with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Centers in California and Idaho to conduct planting trials of milkweed and monarch nectar plants to develop best practices for establishing these plants.

Saving the western monarch migration is not something that we at the Xerces Society can do alone. We must change our landscapes to give monarchs a fighting chance to find nectar, have enough milkweeds for breeding, and complete their annual migration across the western states to return to secure overwintering sites in California next fall. There are steps that can be taken by anyone in any place. We urge you to join us and our colleagues in the western monarch science and conservation community in taking meaningful, swift action to help save western monarchs.

Monarch overwintering in California

There is still time to save western monarchs and their magnificent migration, but we need to act—quickly, decisively, and together. (Photo: Xerces Society / Candace Fallon)

Top 5 Actions to Help Save Western Monarchs

The five actions listed below offer our best chance to recover western monarch populations. Here, we only mention the most urgent steps to be taken under each of the five actions, steps that should be taken in the next few weeks. To see what steps need to be taken during the next 12 months and to find information and guidance to help you act, please visit our Save Western Monarchs page.

1. Protect and manage California overwintering sites.

We need to halt the destruction of overwintering habitat. In the next few months, we need to work at local, regional, and state levels to ensure that overwintering sites in California have sufficient legal and enforced protection.

Monarch cluster

Monarchs cluster on a Monterey pine in California in 2011. Although the numbers of overwintering monarchs at various sites in California are much smaller now, overwintering sites are still crucial to the recovery of the western monarch. (Photo: Xerces Society / Candace Fallon)

2. Restore breeding and migratory habitat in California.

The primary focus for habitat restoration should be the Coast Range, Sacramento Valley, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada—areas critical to producing the first generation of monarchs in the spring. If you are in California, plant nectar sources, especially flowers that bloom in the early spring (February–April), and native milkweed, especially species which emerge earliest and are already at the seedling or transplant stage. These actions can be done right now to support monarchs that will be leaving overwintering sites in the coming weeks. Refer to our Milkweed Seed Finder to locate a native milkweed vendor near you.

Monarch with showy milkweed (A. speciosa)

Monarch flying over showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Availability of larval host plants and nectar sources is a key component to western monarch conservation. (Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)

3. Protect monarchs and their habitat from pesticides.

We need to halt all cosmetic use of pesticides. Seek out non-chemical options to prevent and manage pests in your garden and landscaping. We need to push to suspend the use of neonicotinoids on the commercial production of milkweed plants.

Jumping spider

A bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax) with its prey. Jumping spiders are one of many natural predators of crop pests that can serve as a viable alternative to pesticides. (Photo: Bryan E. Reynolds)

4. Protect, manage, and restore summer breeding and fall migration monarch habitat outside of California.

Monarchs spread out across the western states, seeking breeding areas. For the butterflies to return to their overwintering sites next fall, we need to identify existing monarch habitat and protect it from destruction, and then in the months ahead manage these areas in way that minimizes harm and restore monarch habitat.

Narrowleaf milkweed

Narrowleaf milkweed (A. fascicularis) in rangeland in Nevada. Though the most urgent tasks are centered in California, the rest of the west has a role to play in the conservation of western monarchs. (Photo: Xerces Society / Stephanie McKnight)

5. Answer key research questions about how to best aid western monarch recovery.

The most immediate need is for people in California and Arizona to collect observations of monarchs and milkweeds, especially in the early spring (February–April), the period in which monarchs leave the overwintering sites and year-round breeding sites. In the weeks and months ahead, we also need eyes looking out for monarchs across the rest of the West, in particular, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. Please contribute this data to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper.

Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count

Volunteers participate in the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, the annual citizen science effort to monitor the population of western monarchs overwintering on the California coast that has provided insight into recent monarch declines. (Photo: Charis van der Heide)

How Xerces Can Help You

Saving western monarchs is a big task, and we all need to work together. Xerces is here to help you.

Thank You

Thank you to all the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count volunteers and regional coordinators whose dedication makes understanding the population’s status possible.


Written by Katie Hietala-Henschell and Emma Pelton, Xerces Society Conservation Biologists


Further Reading

Learn more on our Save Western Monarchs Page.

Check out our best management practices for western monarchs here.

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s overall monarch conservation program here.

Keep an eye on the #SaveWesternMonarchs campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for further tips and updates—and spread the word! Download and share the graphics below! Click each image for a full-size, high-resolution version.

Western monarchs have declined by 99.4% since the 1980s.For every 160 monarchs there were in the 1908s, there is now only one.The western monarch population has declined from 4.5 million in the 1980s (larger than the current population of LA) to a mere 28,429 today (smaller than Monterey).


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