Monarch butterflies have been vanishing.
While the planet might not yet be in an “insect apocalypse,” as some recent research has suggested, populations of many species have seen sharp declines in recent decades and face potential extinction — including the monarch.
It is common for folks to comment on the loss of these fragile, amber-hued creatures from backyards and gardens, but a new state effort may help shift that picture.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation debuted a program Monday to offer free milkweed seeds to any state resident wishing to help create crucial habitat for monarch butterflies.
By Wednesday, nearly 9,000 people had signed up via tnpollinators.org.
“It really speaks to the widespread appeal that people are environmentally plugged in,” said Michael McClanahan, who is helping manage the program at TDOT. “They want to do more in their yards.”
The agency will accept orders all year but will only ship seeds between Aug. 1 and Oct. 1. All seeds should be planted by Oct. 15, TDOT said, to ensure successful germination.
Pesticides are a major threat
Monarch butterflies are threatened by pesticides, development, deforestation and climate change. Between the U.S. and Mexico, critical habitat has been lost: Grasslands have been cleared for agriculture; forests have been logged; and milkweed, the main food source of monarch caterpillars, has been decimated by herbicides, a pesticide usually derived from fossil fuels.
State agencies use large amounts of pesticides along right-of-ways. The industrial and government sector accounts for about 5% of pesticide use in the U.S., while about 90% comes from the agricultural sector and 5% from homes and gardens.
Monarch butterflies are considered “umbrella species,” so protecting their habitat also protects other animals. Their local range extends from Canada down to California and Mexico.
The migratory monarch butterfly was classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature last year. North American populations dropped between 20% and 90%, with western populations decreasing by as much as 99%, in the last few decades.
In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The buttery remains on the agency’s candidate waiting list for federal protection.