Are we witnessing the extinction of the monarch butterfly?

Are we witnessing the extinction of the monarch butterfly?

BOSTON — A man-made paradise for pollinators stretches like sunshine over five acres in Concord.

There is one conspicuous absence among the creatures flitting flower to flower: the monarch butterfly. The insect's decline is a fairly recent development. It's almost like watching an extinction unfold in real-time.

"We know that many populations of monarchs have completely crashed," explained Bryan Windmiller, the director of conservation at Zoo New England. "I know out West there have been declines of more than 90 percent in just recent years of monarch butterflies."

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In Massachusetts, the extent of the collapse is unknown, but anecdotally, something's going on.

In the 20 or so minutes we spent in a field specifically planted to attract insects like monarchs -- and on a day perfect for butterfly activity -- we saw exactly one.

"Little bit by little bit, we've been losing pollinator habitat," Zoo New England's Emilie Wilder said. "But little bit by little bit, we can also bring it back."

Loss of native plants monarchs depend on explains part of the population collapse. There's also the long, risky journey the butterflies take each year to Mexico where they spend the winter.

John Linehan, president of Zoo New England, says modern farming isn't helping either.

"Some of these pesticides, especially the glyphosates, are causing the demise not only of monarchs but lots and lots of other really critical pollinators," he said.

Part of the zoo's mission these days is educating visitors on the critical role pollinators like monarchs play.

Simply put, they make possible the produce we eat.

"We have to be responsible in what we're using on our land and how it's impacting all these other species because we do rely on them," Linehan said.

The national alarm over monarchs first went off five years ago. That's when the federal government was petitioned to name the butterfly a threatened species.

By this summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to make a decision on whether to list the monarch butterfly as an endangered species. But that decision has now been pushed out to late next year.

The agency says it needs more time to study what is a complex issue.