• Andy Davis

Monarchs now listed as an endangered species in Nova Scotia Canada - a prelude for things to come

Hello folks,

I'm writing this blog post from beautiful Nova Scotia, Canada, where I'm visiting for work and family events. There have been some interesting developments in the world of monarchs up here in the last two years that have some pretty important ramifications for folks in the US and Canada, and I'm going to try to convey these in this blog entry.

As you can see from the blog title, the monarch was officially listed as "Endangered" at the provincial level (i.e. in Nova Scotia only) in 2017. This was a surprise to me, considering that I'm from here, and I would have thought that people I know here would have told me when it happened. But that's just it, I don't think many people, even those who watch monarchs, actually know about this! I only learned about it when I googled about monarchs in the province and I happened across a 2-year old newspaper article (link here).

So, after digesting this news, I set about trying to learn more about how this happened, and what issues this has created. Given that the USFWS service is still deliberating on the monarchs' status in the United States, it seems like this would be a good way to learn what would happen elsewhere if and when they are listed elsewhere. And, since I was here anyway...

My first step was to track down people from the provincial dept of natural resources who have been instrumental in this decision, or at least, who are now in charge of managing the monarchs, and I recently met with them to talk about it. They were incredibly nice people, and who have a really tough job - they are the people who have to do the leg work on protecting and restoring all of the critters and species that are imperiled in the province - there's over 70 such species, actually. Talking with them made me realize how overwhelming that job would be!

So, one of the first things we discussed was how the monarch became listed in Nova Scotia to begin with. After all, I wasn't aware of any long-term data on the monarch breeding population here. So how then did they come to conclusion that monarchs were declining to the point of endangerment in Nova Scotia? And, considering that there are monarchs everywhere here this summer! Well, it became clear as we talked that there aren't any such data, and, that the sole basis for the listing here was the fact that the overwintering colonies have been declining in Mexico (facepalm).

I know I've droned on about this issue before on this blogsite - that those data and that decline does NOT represent what is happening with monarchs in the summer breeding range - but this seems to be a case where this myth has now officially gotten out of hand. You can browse prior entries in this site to see what I mean, such as that open letter I wrote earlier this year to the USFWS concerning their deliberations. In a nutshell, all of the long-term data from various citizen science programs that track summer or fall monarch abundance has NOT shown any evidence of declines. The declines at the overwintering stage therefore do not indicate that monarchs are in trouble, or that milkweed is running out. They indicate that fewer monarchs are reaching the overwintering site. There is a key difference in these two scenarios, but it looks like no one, not even the scientists at the provincial natural resources dept., are aware of this difference.

Allow me a brief interlude on this story. After talking with these folks, I'm starting to figure out why the entire world believes that monarchs are in serious trouble. It's really a public relations problem if you think about it. If you google the term, "monarch population graph", you get about a dozen iterations of the same graph from Mexico. Nothing else comes up. No graphs from the long-running North American Butterfly Association, nothing from Cape May, NJ, nothing from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, etc. Somehow, the entire world has bought into this idea that the entire population of monarchs in the eastern population is represented by this one graph. It probably doesn't help that these "other" graphs I keep harping about are not splashed all over the internet. And, it seems like I'm the only scientist out there who brings them up! So it looks like when people see the Mexico graph, they simply extrapolate that downward trend to their own backyard, or in this case, to the province of Nova Scotia. The folks I talked to were completely unaware that there was a recent study of monarch breeding range size IN CANADA that just showed that the monarchs here are actually expanding their breeding range (I blogged about it here)! They were also unaware that there has been no long-term decline in migrating monarchs at Cape May, NJ, which is directly south of Nova Scotia. If the breeding abundance of monarchs in eastern Canada were truly declining, then this would be reflected in migration counts at Cape May. In short, they were unaware that monarchs in this part of the world are not declining!

To be fair, as I mentioned, these folks have a lot on their plates. And, they are not monarch scientists. And, they are not solely responsible for this listing. They indicated that a group of scientists gets together annually to discuss all "candidate" species, and then they all make a collective decision on which species needs to be listed. This happens at the federal level too in Canada. But, it sounded like none of the people they listed in these groups were monarch specialists either. Thus, they would likely not be aware of these "alternate" population graphs unless they routinely read the science papers focused on monarchs. I think they basically just googled their way through when they were making this decision!

I explained all of this to them (nicely). They were very interested. And, also a little shocked to see that the basis for their decision was an incorrect interpretation of the Mexican overwintering colony data. They did mention that the decision can be reconsidered if new information was found, and that there is a specific procedure they follow in these cases (apparently it happens). I may just continue my correspondence with them to see if it would indeed be possible to change this.

I should point out that I don't really have a dog in this fight. I only occasionally visit here, and I'm not doing any active research here either. But to me, this seems like an injustice in the world of science, and it would be too if this same thing happens in the U.S. Here, a species was listed as endangered, when in fact it's not. Not even close. They didn't even have data from Nova Scotia to use as the basis of this decision! This is a sign that the people who are pushing the monarch decline story (some scientists, and especially journalists), have now taken this too far.

And, the other reason why I think this is important, is because I can see the same wheels turning in the ongoing deliberation by the USFWS. In my letter to them earlier this year, I pointed out that I believe they are basing too much of their decision on the Mexican data. If one only looks at those data (like if you pretend no other data exists), then of course you would believe that the entire population is going to be wiped out in the near future! Thus, I am worried that they will indeed list the monarch, based solely on that one dataset.

OK, back to my conversation - after we talked about the mistake in listing the monarch in Nova Scotia, we next discussed what has become of the listing, and here is where folks in the U.S. should listen up, because this is exactly what will happen if the monarch is listed there. Being listed as endangered in Nova Scotia means NO ONE CAN TOUCH THEM. OR THEIR HABITATS (I.E. MILKWEED). This is huge. And, this is exactly the fear that folks in the US have. Being on the endangered list here means that the monarch is now officially protected. That means, no rearing, no catching (tagging), no classroom activities, no butterfly festivals, etc., etc.! That is, not without a permit.

Yes, a permit. We talked about this in detail, because this is also what I can foresee coming in the U.S. - some kind of permit application process to allow people to handle monarchs. In Nova Scotia now, anyone who wishes to touch monarchs must now obtain a permit from the Dept. of Natural Resources. And, this permit is not given to just anyone. They said that all permit applications will be reviewed by them and also by outside experts to determine if it is warranted. According to them, the permit application must provide evidence that the handling of monarchs is for the purposes of 1) scientific research, and/or 2) monarch conservation.

So, if you're a monarch rearer, you're probably thinking, well, my kitchen rearing operation is for "monarch conservation", so this should qualify. I asked them about this specifically. No it doesn't. Simply rearing monarchs for the sake of rearing them is not a valid conservation endeavor (their words, not mine, although I do echo these). But, rearing for the purposes of contributing to a science-based citizen science program might be acceptable, such as for Monarch Health.

I asked how many permits have been given so far, and the answer seems to be none. It sounds like they have basically been trying to educate people on this new law thus far, although they did sound like they would soon be getting more draconian. At some point in the future, they may have to fine people if they are caught handling monarchs without a permit (which can be over $1000). Notice I used the word caught there. It sounds like they will not be actively looking for these "evildoers", but if someone is "reported" they will look into it. I take this to mean that if someone were to rear monarchs in their basement, and never tell anyone about it, then there would be no way of knowing. I wonder if there will be an anonymous hotline where people can rat others out?

There is another crazy part here - not only is it illegal to touch monarchs in Nova Scotia, but this also goes for their habitat (i.e. milkweed!). And this too is also something that will happen in the U.S. - milkweed, even if it's in someone's backyard, is now off limits in Nova Scotia. As in, you cannot destroy it. It's federally-protected. But what about other "monarch habitat" like a flower garden? The folks I talked to didn't really have an answer there. I feel like this is going to lead to some pretty serious legal troubles for someone down the road. As of now, nothing has become of this part in Nova Scotia.

What I took from this whole conversation is that because the monarch listing was just implemented two summers ago, they (the NS Dept of Natural Resources) were still in an early stage of this process. And, the people of Nova Scotia (and me!) are also just now learning about it too. In fact, the officials told me that they often get calls from frustrated people who say they've been working with monarchs for years, and only just now saw that they can no longer do what they had been doing for years! I suspect this is exactly how it will play out in the US. A lot of questions and frustrations. And, all because of an erroneous interpretation of the actual science!

Welcome to the world where perception of science trumps the actual science. Pun intended.



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The science of monarch butterflies

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