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  • Andy Davis

Monarchs to be listed as endangered in Canada - is this the beginning of the end for citizen science

Hi folks,

I have a rather short blog post today, about a recent event in the monarch world that could be good news or bad, depending on where you stand on certain issues. I guess the theme of this post is - be careful what you wish for.

The news is this - the monarch is slated to become an official endangered species in Canada sometime in the near future. This is based on a recent recommendation by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (link to their website). Apparently, they made a recommendation to the federal government that the monarch's status be switched to endangered in Canada. It sounds like the government would then consider this change sometime in the next year or two. This is, and will be, a huge development and one that has vast repercussions for everyone involved in monarch conservation and research in Canada - and importantly - for citizen scientists. So if you are one of these people I just mentioned, and I'm sure you are, you need to listen close right now.

The listing of the monarch on Canada's version of the endangered species act (which is called the Species at Risk Act in Canada), will mean two things: 1) the monarch and its habitats will become legally protected in Canada, and 2) no one will be allowed to touch them - like no catching and tagging, no rearing them in your home, no classroom activities, etc. And, once the move becomes official, no one will be allowed to mess with their habitat either, which means no one can mess with any milkweed, growing anywhere, since that, by definition, is monarch habitat. Any backyard flowerbed with milkweed in it in Canada will become officially protected and no one will be allowed to damage it, even if the homeowner sells the home to someone else.

Think this is shocking? Guess what - this some thing may happen in the United States in a few years. As everyone knows, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the monarch as 'Threatened' under the Endangered Species Act. I suspect the U.S. is likely to follow Canada'a lead on this. If and when that happens, the monarch will have the same set of protections in the US.

OK, so I may be being a little dramatic here. Actually, it's not yet clear how this will shake out, and what this will mean for citizen science in particular. I did some digging online to see the details of the Species at risk Act in Canada, and I found out a couple of things.

First, Canada doesn't mess around with people who break this law. Under the Species at Risk Act website, I found a section for 'Enforcement', and it says:

The SARA approach is to encourage species protection through voluntary actions and supported stewardship activities. However, the law also creates offences and sets penalties for committing these offences.

The following are the range of penalties for a person or corporation found guilty of a SARA offence:

  • Summary conviction offence (less serious) :

  • Corporation – a fine of up to $300,000 for each offence

  • Non-profit corporation – up to a $50,000 fine for each offence

  • Individual – up to a $50,000 fine and/ or a prison term of up to one year for each offence.

  • Indictable offence (more serious):

  • Corporation – up to a $1,000,000 fine for each offence

  • Non-profit corporation – up to a $250,000 fine for each offence

  • Individual – up to a $250,000 fine and/ or a prison term of up to five years for each offence

Whoa! Harsh.

I did find another section here that had what may be some good news, which was about 'Permitted Activities'. It says:

Agreements, permits and licences allow someone to do something that would otherwise be a SARA offence. The following activities may be allowed as long as measures are taken to minimize the impact, and the activities do not jeopardize the survival or recovery of the species:

  • scientific research about the conservation of the species done by a qualified person

  • an activity that benefits the species or enhances its chances of survival in the wild

  • an activity whose effect on the listed species is incidental.

For example, a scientist may be allowed to handle and tag an endangered species so that its movements can be tracked. Or, water flow could be diverted in a marsh to improve habitat for listed species in the area, although this might disturb some individuals of the species in the short-term. Or, fishermen may be given a permit allowing the by-catch of endangered or threatened fish under certain circumstances.

So from all of this it sounds as if when the monarch does get officially listed people in Canada MAY be able to touch them for citizen science, or research purposes, IF they can get a permit from the government to do so. Also, they would have to convince the government that their activities would not harm the monarchs (would they need scientific evidence for this point?). So I'm guessing people who want to participate in monarch citizen science projects would either have to get their own permits, or alternatively, the citizen science program would get some sort of blanket permit for all of its participants. But notice the wording above about only allowing a 'qualified person'. This wording makes it sound like not just anyone would be permitted to do the work, but there would need to be some training(?). This could get weird.

From some brief correspondence I've had with people in the know about this, it sounds like this move is intended mostly to protect 'critical habitats' in the Ontario region - probably places where large numbers of monarchs congregate in the fall. This would indeed be great. However, I still don't think this committee has thought this through all the way. Even if their intentions were to protect important places in this one region, it sounds like this will be a nation-wide law, by default. I mean, how can you have a species listed as endangered but only have their protection be enforced at certain places? If the monarch is listed this would certainly impact monarch habitat everywhere across the country - and most importantly, it would affect the people in Canada who work with monarchs directly - think of all the classroom activities, catching and tagging, scientific studies, etc.

So whatever happens from all of this in Canada, keep in mind that the US is likely to follow its lead. Recall that the monarch is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act in the US, and there was a petition that went around last year in support of this. I signed this petition, and I blogged about why a while back. In a nutshell, I signed this because it would essentially prevent people from mass-rearing monarchs, which is a huge problem right now. See the other blog on the issue of monarch rearing.

Again, this is a huge development in the monarch world, and there are likely to be major repercussions once this all shakes out. Will monarch citizen-science suffer from this?

Time will tell.


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The science of monarch butterflies

A blog about monarchs, written by a monarch scientist, for people who love monarchs

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