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Whither the monarch butterfly

We should try to keep them from going extinct. That would be bad.

The state’s chief financial officer has approved a $300,000 grant to investigate why the number of monarch butterflies is declining in Texas, and what can be done about it.

The bottom line for Comptroller Glenn Hegar, however, is less about butterflies than it is about commerce.

The state’s interest in the study by the University of Texas at San Antonio includes the potential economic impact on Texas should the federal government decide to list the official state insect as a threatened species.

Kevin Lyons, Hegar’s press secretary, said that if the iconic butterfly is listed, “many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production.” Texas, he said, is trying to take the lead nationally on monarch conservation efforts.

“This crucial research will help us develop voluntary best management practices to conserve the monarch butterfly while minimizing the impact on economic activity,” Hegar said in a statement announcing the grant.

The monarch study is the latest funded by the state in an effort to “gather data on species under review so it can respond appropriately to proposed listings … and find the right balance of protecting our natural resources and our state’s economy,” according to the website for the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species, which Hegar chairs.

[…]

In Texas and other states, studies weighing economic development against the cost of saving endangered species have become the latest battleground between environmental groups and big business.

“We’ve seen this with the sage grouse, wolves, freshwater mussels and other species,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. “The argument is that if we have to protect anything, the world will end, when actually it won’t. There is a public benefit to protecting butterflies and other species, but it’s hard to monetize. … Studying the economics of a listing is a very clever way of saying the cost will be high – something most people can understand – when that doesn’t measure the cost of losing a species.”

In Texas, officials said the monarch study will evaluate the abundance and distribution of the otherwise unremarkable nuisance plant known as milkweed, the butterfly’s primary food source.

If the butterfly is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened, officials fear much of the state could be affected because Texas is a major flyway for the annual migration of the monarch between Mexico and Canada each year.

Environmental groups seeking to have the monarch listed note that the butterfly’s population fell from about 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million last winter, the lowest number ever logged.

“There’s been an 80 percent decline in the population, a precipitous decline,” said Lori Ann Burd, the environmental health director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that filed to have the monarch listed. “They can’t survive in smaller numbers. We’re really at the precipice with the monarch.”

That’s actually a 96.5% decline, which sounds pretty bad to me. Butterflies have an important role to play in pollinization, so to say the least there would be a significant cost if they were to become endangered or worse. Let’s for once please not be penny-wise and pound-foolish here.

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