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Groups file to list monarchs as endangered

A monarch butterfly rests on a common tansy in Duluth in this August 2010 file photo. Forum News Service

DULUTH — With monarch butterfly numbers down more than 90 percent over the past 20 years and their habitat increasingly disappearing, conservation groups called on the U.S. government Tuesday to list the insects as an endangered species.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society and monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower filed a legal petition Tuesday to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for monarch butterflies.

Monarch enthusiasts say increasing use of pesticides and, especially, destruction of key milkweed habitat have become major threats to the iconic orange and black butterfly. They estimate that over the past 20 years monarchs have lost about 165 million acres of habitat, an area about the size of Texas.

“Monarchs are in a deadly free fall, and the threats they face are now so large in scale that Endangered Species Act protection is needed sooner rather than later, while there is still time to reverse the severe decline in the heart of their range,” Brower said in a prepared statement announcing the petition.

Georgia Parham, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokeswoman, said the agency has 90 days to respond on whether the petition is warranted. It probably would take several years to complete a process if the agency determined it is needed. She noted that several insects, including some species of butterflies, already are on the list.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the monarch butterfly’s dramatic decline is being driven by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs are born. The use of specific herbicides in corn and soybean fields that kill milkweed has been a particular problem. Milkweed now is nearly nonexistent in areas of heavy corn and soybean production, the group notes.

“Without milkweed you don’t have monarchs. Females will only lay eggs on milkweed and the (monarch) caterpillars will only eat milkweed,” said Tom Uecker, a retired Duluth teacher who has been raising and releasing monarch butterflies for nearly 40 years.

Uecker plants milkweed and has milkweed seeds that he gives away to anyone willing to plant them.

“Milkweed is great for all pollinators, like bees, and many pollinators are in big trouble,” Uecker said. “Milkweed is also a native plant, a native wildflower. It’s not a weed at all. We need to get people to plant more of it.”

Uecker noted that 2013 saw the lowest migratory monarch population on record.