What everyday people can do to prevent monarchs from being federally protected (not what you think)
Today's blog post comes at the heels of a fresh round of sky-is-falling news around the monarchs, and so is devoted entirely to this. I'm sure all of this blog's readers have seen these stories. In a nutshell, the IUCN, an international group of scientists, has declared that monarch butterflies in North America will be placed on their own redlist of "endangered" species. As in globally endangered. As in, only two steps removed from extinction! This decision seems to have set off a firestorm of news, in all of the major news outlets, so that my feeds are all filled with it. I'm sure yours are too. The irony is, this all comes exactly one month following the news of the study by myself and colleagues, which showed that the sky is not falling in the world of monarchs. See the prior two blog posts about that. If you have not yet read those blogs, I can tell you that the latest citizen science data indicates that despite the seemingly dire-sounding declines of winter colony sizes, the number of breeding monarchs has not really changed over time in North America. In other words, the summer population is not in trouble, and the declines in the winter colonies (while serious) are not actually affecting the number of monarchs we see in the United States and Canada. That's what makes this new decision so absurd!
Speaking of the summer population, let me nip something else in the bud before going further. The number of all insects, including monarch butterflies, is low this year. I know. Everyone is talking about this. I know you've only seen one monarch all year in your yard (or insert the number). So what? That's not the end of the world. Insect populations are notoriously variable - sometimes they are high, sometimes they are low. For the past few years, we've enjoyed some rather high numbers of monarchs, if you recall. So it is not that surprising to have a low year or two following that. It would actually be more surprising if there were NO low years. And, this low year for monarchs probably has nothing to do with us humans even. The fact that all insect species are low this year really means the weather has been bad for their collective growth. So anyway, it's a low year - get over it.
OK, so back to the news. This new viral story about how monarchs are in trouble has everyone talking and messaging, etc., which I think was the idea behind it. To me, the timing of all of this seems fishy. If you think about it, there was no recent event or study that seemed to preclude this announcement. So there seems to be no real reason for all of this to happen right now. The articles I've read state that the IUCN determined that the North American population has declined precipitously, based on the winter colony counts. However, last year's counts in both California and Mexico were actually up from prior years. So why did they make this decision right now, and especially one month after the prior study that showed good news for monarchs?
What I'm alluding to here is the essence of the topic of today. What I see going on here is something that is happening more and more, and is a real problem in the world of science, and especially with monarchs. And, you have probably even been a party to it without knowing it. I'm talking about the public "narrative" around the monarch, or the "storyline" if you will. It's becoming more and more divorced from reality. The storyline around monarchs has been that they are in trouble - they're losing habitat, their milkweed is all gone, the winter colonies are shrinking, they're at risk of extinction, etc., etc. In recent years, this whole narrative has gotten way out of hand, and in fact is now overriding the science. It's become so bad that we've reached the point where the data and facts don't matter anymore in directing the conservation actions taken, and it is more about public perception, or the court of public opinion. Basically, if you tell a story over and over again enough, people eventually stop questioning it. This is the definition of dogma, and it is leading the way right now.
The problem is, this out-of-control dogma around the monarch is eventually going to lead to them being officially listed as (legally) endangered in either the United States or Canada, or both. Both countries are on the verge of doing so right now, and I worry that this news will be the nudge that finally does it. This frightens me for many reasons. First, as a scientist, this would greatly limit my own research on monarchs. In fact, I may have to stop working on them altogether. It is near-impossible to conduct lab-based research on endangered species. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I think this would be a tragedy for science, because the reality is that monarchs are nowhere near that point. In fact, they are one of the most abundant butterflies in North America in recent years. And the latest research shows they are doing fine. So, listing them as endangered in either country would signify that the actual science doesn't matter. That is the part that really scares me. Why conduct any serious research anymore then? Why do we even need people to volunteer for citizen science programs if we aren't going to use their data?
The possibility of monarchs being federally protected should frighten you too. Think about it - if monarchs become listed in either the U.S. or Canada, it would trigger a wave of regulations that would impact everyone. There would be no more citizen science projects involving touching them (tagging, checking for OE, etc.), no more monarchs in classrooms, no more outreach events, just to name a few. And then think about the milkweed. Once monarchs become listed, any "critical monarch habitat" then becomes federally protected too. This could mean any backyard filled with milkweed, or perhaps a "critical" roosting tree in your backyard or park. It would be chaos.
We are on the road to this eventuality right now, not because of any one study, or research project, but BECAUSE OF THE DOGMA. It just won't go away, and, you have probably even helped to keep it around. That's right, you, the blog reader probably share some of the blame for this. You have probably been helping to perpetuate this narrative for years. How many times have you shared a fluff piece about monarchs being in trouble? How many times have you pointed out in a comment that the sky is falling? All of this only serves to perpetuate and amplify the myth.
So, want to know what you can do to stop monarchs from being listed? It's very simple - share the goddamn research that shows they are doing fine! I just posted two blogs that show exactly this, which are based on the latest and most up-to-date facts and science. I noticed that hardly anyone shared these. There also were plenty of media articles about this study, in the New York Times, National Geographic, etc., and, hardly anyone shared these too. Why the hell not?
Let's drill down on this right now. If you are reading this now, then I'll assume you have read the prior blogs I'm talking about. Why didn't you yourself share them, or the related news articles? I saw that the posts were read by many folks, and I know that most readers also belong to other groups and have rather large networks of their own. But these posts didn't go viral, or spread like they should have. Was it because you didn't want to believe the evidence? Or did you simply not want to cause an argument in your Facebook groups, or social media sites? Or, did you not share it because you believe (as many do) that this myth does do some good, by motivating people to take actions? Or let's look at this another way. For all of the times you saw someone post something about how the sky is falling, did you ever correct said person, perhaps by sharing one of these blogs (or news articles)? Have you done ANYTHING to try to correct the record? If the answer is no, then you have helped to perpetuate the myth.
If and when the monarchs become listed, protected, etc., it will not be because of me. As a scientist, I have done all that I can to prevent this, and I've probably even done more than most do (by creating this blog). In fact, I have been shouting this same message now for a decade or more. When that day comes, everyone who has helped to create this myth, and who has helped to perpetuate it, will share that dubious responsibility.
Right now as I see it, the only way to prevent monarchs from being listed is for everyday people, like yourself, to step up and help me to correct the public record on monarchs. Since the public narrative is driving the bus, we (you) must help by taking the wheel!
I'll end this by providing the individual links to both of the prior blogs. Share these with everyone you know, and then share this blog, to demonstrate to them why it is so important that people need to see these.
Well, this was an interesting blog to write. Hopefully for the next one I'll be able to get back to writing about research projects!
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