Why is the U.S. letting these monarch butterflies disappear?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

Every fall, the iconic orange-and-black monarch butterflies begin their migration to warmer weather. In central Mexico, monarchs by the hundreds and thousands have been arriving from the eastern U.S. and Canada, coating oyamel trees so densely that the bark can’t be seen. In the space of 10 minutes this past October, one volunteer counted 505.

On the California coast, it’s a different story. At a time when western monarchs (which live west of the Rocky Mountains) should be showing up in droves to spend the winter in groves of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress, there is mostly silence. Fewer than 2,000 have been counted this year, down from last year’s count of 30,000. And way down from the four million that wintered there in the 1980s. It’s a drop of 99 percent. (Pictured above, thousands of monarchs just two years ago at California’s Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove.)

And despite the spectacle in central Mexico, even eastern monarchs, which last year numbered about 60 million, have dropped by 80 percent in recent decades.

That’s why many conservationists were disappointed on Tuesday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would not recommend putting the monarch on the threatened species list. It’s not that the species isn’t edging to extinction—the monarch meets criteria to be considered threatened, the service admits. But there are “higher priority listing actions,” it said.

Translation: Take a ticket, and move to the back of the line, please.

The monarch is indeed threatened with extinction, the government says, but limited resources are better spent on more imperiled species—161 of them to be exact. The monarch is now on a waiting list, its status to be reevaluated annually. If nothing changes, the government plans to propose listing it in 2024. If things get worse, it could be considered again for listing sooner.

So what does this mean now? Monarch conservation will continue as always—with local, state, and national programs that encourage the creation of pollinator gardens, the restoration of monarch habitat, and volunteer science programs to monitor populations.

If you want to help, here are some resources:

• Learn how to create a monarch waystation. (Make sure you plant the right kinds of milkweed!)
Volunteer to count monarchs. Encourage your local government to adapt weed and mowing laws.
• Encourage your state’s department of transportation participate in the monarch highway and turn roadside corridors into butterfly habitat.
• Help kids get excited about monarchs with printable coloring books (in English and Spanish), educational crafts, and school gardens.

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Today in a minute

Why are there so many geese around? Don’t Canada geese migrate south anymore, or have they found a forever home hissing and pooping in city and suburban parks, golf courses, and neighborhoods? They often do stick around, like many suburbanites, for the kids, Brian Handwerk writes for Nat Geo. The nine-pound birds and their goslings, whose non-migrating population has swelled over the past half-century, face fewer predators around town than on long journeys. That said, even resident birds can suddenly take off for the Arctic in spring. And they can fly 1,500 miles in 24 hours. (Pictured above, Canada geese gather at a playground in British Columbia in July.)

Saving the lemur: Madagascar is a biological wonderland, home to 107 species of lemurs. But the nation also is one of the poorest, and the pandemic-fueled halt to tourism has led some struggling residents to chop away at the lemurs’ forest habitat to support their families. An increasing number of lemurs, many species of which are endangered, have also been hunted and eaten, Nat Geo’s Dina Fine Maron reports.

Take that, wasps! Rural Chinese are plagued by wasp stings, which can be deadly. Now a drone has been converted into a flying flamethrower, targeting wasp nests. A volunteer search-and-rescue group teamed up with villagers outside Chongqing to remove the insects, the Independent reports.

Wither wild macadamia trees? An Australian macadamia nut tree has been listed as threatened, which may seem an incongruity as cultivated macadamias are among the nation’s top crops. The issue: The farmed macadamias are clones of relatively few strains, leaving them especially vulnerable to disease. The wild macadamia trees, however, are genetically diverse and might protect the broader crop, the Guardian reports.

They eat algae: A new study says these “reef goats”—Caribbean king crabs—could munch the killer algae that’s smothering the corals off the Florida Keys. “They will eat almost any type of algae, and they eat a lot of it,” marine researcher Mark Butler tells the Florida Keys News. The crabs even eat types that algae-loving marine creatures, such as parrotfish, avoid.

Your Instagram photo of the day

Speaking of Florida: The Sunshine State is home to more non-native species of reptiles and amphibians than anywhere else in the world. The Argentine black-and-white tegu, which can grow up to four feet long, is another invasive escapee from the pet trade. The omnivorous, fast-multiplying species is considered a potential ecological hazard, known for eating the buried eggs of native reptiles. University of Florida biologists are working toward the removal of the species in the Everglades. An extensive trap line is baited with eggs and checked daily. Some of the trapped lizards get re-released with radio telemetry transmitters to track their movements.

Related: This dog-size lizard is spreading through the southeastern U.S.

The big takeaway

Beating a cancer: For at least three decades a gruesome, contagious cancer has decimated Tasmanian devils. Now, however, a new study says the disease’s infection rate among wild devils has declined greatly since it first emerged, bringing new hope for the preservation of the species. “It’s slowing down,” evolutionary biologist Austin Patton tells Nat Geo. Devil facial tumor disease, as it’s called, had slashed the species’ population from 140,000 animals to about 20,000. (Pictured above, a captive Tasmanian devil at the Something Wild Animal Sanctuary in Tasmania in 2008. Many of the captive animals were separated from parents suffering from facial cancer.)

In a few words

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The last glimpse

The fastest dog: That would be Phelan (above), a Maryland rescue dog, who won the fastest-dog competition on December 11. The four-year-old female mixed-breed beat out over a hundred purebreds at the American Kennel Club’s 100-yard dash in Orlando. Her time: 6.346 seconds—or 32.3 miles per hour. The oatmeal-hued mix of greyhound, borzoi, and Scottish deerhound was adopted by Krista Shreet and Ted Koch when the pup was a year old. “We took her in, and she’s stolen our hearts,” Koch tells Nat Geo.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this newsletter. Have an idea, a link, a story about a fast dog? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . And thanks for reading.

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