The inconvenient truth about monarchs
(picture above taken from https://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/engineering-limits-inconvenient-truths/)
Thanks for tuning in to another riveting story of the science around monarch butterflies, as told by yours truly. Actually, this post is less about science and more about how science can sometimes get in the way of things. Today I'm going to tell you about what happened in the aftermath of that crazy study from last year, that showed how monarchs are NOT really in trouble. I've talked about that study before, in which myself and a team of top-notch statistical gurus analyzed 130,000 records of monarch observations across North America, and discovered that the breeding population has basically been stable for the past 25 years. There have been declines in certain places, and increases in others, but overall, nothing that suggests monarchs are in trouble, or, that their breeding habitat is declining. That paper went through many rounds of peer-review, and was published in a high-profile scientific journal. In other words, it was not wrong. If you have not read about the paper, please do so now (blog link is here), because the rest of this post will not make much sense.
Now, here's where the story gets interesting. I bet a lot of people reading this right now (especially if you are a first-timer to this blog) are surprised to hear this - that monarchs aren't really in trouble. You were probably under the impression that this butterfly is teetering on the edge of extinction, and its habitat is all gone, etc., etc. You are under this impression because you have heard this narrative over and over again, mostly from insect conservation groups, like the Xerces Society, Monarch Joint Venture, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, Pollinator Partnership, WWF, and the list goes on. Each of these groups, in their own websites, blogs, facebook posts, etc., have been (very loudly) telling everyone that monarchs are in trouble for years. And importantly, they are STILL telling people this, even after the publication of the paper last year. This gets to why I titled this blog "The inconvenient truth", because that's exactly what is happening now.
This is what I see going on right now. There is a purposeful effort underway now to keep people from hearing about the data and evidence from the 2022 paper. Outside of this blog site, or my Facebook group (The Thoughtful Monarch), have you seen any solid discussion of that study in the last 6 months? No, you haven't, because no one besides me is talking about it. None of the aforementioned groups are talking about it, that's for sure. Of course I'm not privy to the inner communications from these groups, but if I had to guess, I would say it is because they want people to continue believing monarchs are in trouble, because it is a huge incentive for donations, and for getting people to volunteer, or even to plant a pollinator garden. People will really open up their wallets when they hear monarchs are in trouble. Yes, I know that one could argue that these actions could end up doing some good, but the scientist in me cannot stand by and watch what is essentially a lie, be perpetuated on the public.
And this is where it is even more interesting. The beauty of this lie is that is is kind of self-perpetuating, and it will keep itself going, as long as people never hear the actual truth. As in, as long as they never hear about the evidence from the 2022 paper. Thus, as long as the organizations never ever talk about that paper, or acknowledge it, then the lie will continue on its own.
Here's why I know this is indeed what is happening. Because I've reached out to each of these groups personally, after the 2022 study was published (or in some cases, just prior), and I asked if they would like to hear about our findings. I got the same response from each of them.
For example, I reached out to both the Center for Food Safety, and the Center for Biological Diversity, in May of 2022. These two organizations were the ones who spearheaded the push to get monarchs listed as endangered by the USFWS. Given their "concern" for the monarch population, I thought that they would surely want to know what our findings showed (which in reality was good news for monarchs). I offered to have a zoom meeting with them, and to personally walk them through the data, the analyses and the results. Their answer? "Thanks Andy, we'll get back to you." I'm not paraphrasing, it was literally just that one sentence, and, of course they never did. I even reached out again in August and asked. No response that time.
The same thing happened when I contacted the USFWS directly, and offered to tell THEM what we had found. I sent them the published paper, and gave the same offer. They said, "Thanks, we'll look into it." Again, not paraphrasing.
I contacted the government of Canada, who is still in the process of listing monarchs as endangered. Same thing.
I contacted the National Wildlife Federation. Same response.
It was like this with every group I reached out to, whether they were government, or an NGO. Basically, I have gone above and beyond what any researcher would EVER do to ensure that their published work is seen, and more importantly, used to make decisions. The collective response was a cold shoulder.
Here's the funny thing. There was one group that actually was VERY interested in hearing about this new study, which was a group called the "Crop Life America Pollinator Work Group." This is an assortment of big agro-chemical companies, like Syngenta, Bayer (Monstanto), BASF - basically all of the companies that have taken it on the chin over the last 10 years because the world was led to believe that the monarchs were being wiped out by their chemicals. Side note - I receive no funding from any of these groups! Anyway, they specifically reached out to me last year (not the other way around) and asked if I would speak to their group about this new study, which I did. They were very appreciative.
Keep in mind that our results did show that there are some places in North America where the use of glyphosate (roundup) caused some minor declines in monarch abundance, but then there were other places where there were increases, including even in the Midwest! So in other words, the story about how roundup was "decimating" the monarch habitat was largely overstated. And, I told that to the agro-chemical group.
To be fair, the conservation organizations that politely declined to hear more about the study are not solely to blame for this lie being perpetrated. The now-famous IUCN listing probably did the most damage here. I've blogged about this listing before too (link here), and about how I am actually challenging it. That decision is still pending, so stay tuned. But in reality, that listing by the IUCN was the icing on the cake for the big lie. It effectively convinced the entire world (yes, there was global news about this) that monarchs in North America are teetering on the edge of extinction. And, I'm sure that a lot of readers here were also convinced by this listing.
So, if you look at the really big picture here, combining the IUCN listing with the efforts by all of the above-mentioned conservation groups, it seems that there is a massive, well-coordinated and well-funded campaign that tells a very compelling story about how a cute little butterfly is in trouble, and, that YOU can help if you just donate money. And then you have this (very inconvenient) study that shows how this story is really just that - a story.
Is it any wonder that they didn't want to hear from me?
That's all for now.
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