Can lawsuits save the monarch butterfly?

Conservation groups are suing to try to place the monarch butterfly on the endangered species list to free up more resources for its protection.

Gregory Bull/AP
In this Aug. 19, 2015 photo, Tom Merriman stands behind a monarch in his butterfly atrium at his nursery in Vista, Calif. Conservation groups are suing to try and place the Monarch butterfly on the Endangered Species list to free up more resources for its protection.

Animal species can become endangered due to causes as diverse as logging, pesticides, and motor boats, but one conservation organization aims to save the monarch butterfly by using a different man-made process: litigation.

The Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Center for Food Safety, is threatening to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service for taking more time than permitted by the Endangered Species Act to decide whether the monarch butterfly warrants protection.

As of Jan. 12, the center has already launched or threatened legal action on behalf of species five times in 2016. The New Mexico-based non-profit employs lawsuits so regularly that their notices of intent have the same format and wording. They use them to secure more extensive protection for species such as the California Spotted Owl and Virgin River Spinedace, according to its website:

Based on our unparalleled record of legal successes – 93 percent of our lawsuits result in favorable outcomes – we’ve developed a unique negotiating position with both government agencies and private corporations, enabling us, at times, to secure broad protections for species and habitat without the threat of litigation.

While it can't force the US Fish and Wildlife Service to place the monarch butterfly on the Endangered Species list, Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the the Center for Biological Diversity says the group can file a notice of intent to get a binding date for a decision by the end of the year.

"Ninety-nine percent of listed species have been saved from extinction," Ms. Curry says.

One example of progress related to the Endangered Species Act came recently, as the US Fish and Wildlife Service moved to pull the manatee's "endangered" designation last week. The shift from "endangered" to "threatened" status for manatees is still hypothetical pending review, but the Florida manatee community grew by nearly fourfold since the 1990s, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, their numbers are climbing and the threats to the species’ survival are being reduced," Michael Bean, principal deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior, said in the agency’s Thursday press release.

Conservationists hope for a similar success story for the monarch butterfly, a species that has declined to 56.6 million from 1 billion butterflies in 1997, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Although most endangered species make the list with much smaller populations, Curry says the butterfly species responds dramatically to even small changes in weather or habitat and needs massive numbers to survive at all.

"Their migration makes them incredibly vulnerable," Curry says.

The number of butterflies has dropped as pesticides have targeted milkweed, a plant that doubles as the insect's food source and habitat.

Conservation money has been coming in for the monarch butterfly. The Obama administration announced a plan to establish a "butterfly corridor" along US Interstate 35 last year, and gardeners are learning how to plant butterfly-friendly milkweed in their yards, The Christian Science Monitor's Noelle Swan reported.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has also acted, but the money pledged so far can restore only 1 percent of the butterfly's habitat, and Curry says the butterflies need the "comprehensive plan with numbers for funding that would guide the recovery of the butterfly" guaranteed by the Endangered Species Act.

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