It’s good that in 2014 we’ve had a national conversation about monarch butterflies, whose overwintering numbers in Mexico plummeted for a second year in a row (two colonies covering only 1.5 acres). The causes are many, with lack of milkweed habitat in the United States a leading player. But in our commonly emotional responses to the loss of a quintessential summer insect, we’re skimming over a much larger conversation we need to be having—what else is vanishing along with the monarch, and why aren’t we doing anything more profound to preserve and create habitat for native ecosystems like prairie, where milkweed once thrived?
Globally, grasslands are the least protected and most endangered ecosystem. By 2100 the American Great Plains may lose 77 percent of its once formidable expanse, a region whose rates of loss equal deforestation of rainforests in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Within the Plains environment are countless species of insect, amphibian, mammal, and plant that are severely threatened, from lesser prairie chickens to Salt Creek tiger beetles to Texas horned lizards to black-footed ferrets. The loss of biodiversity is stunning, and as folks like E. O. Wilson and Elizabeth Kolbert state, we may be losing thousands of species each year across the planet—some studies suggest dozens every hour. Kids today will see 35 percent fewer moths and butterflies—and 28 percent fewer birds, mammals, fish, and frogs—than their parents saw forty years ago. Timothy Walker in his book Plant Conservation: Why It Matters and How it Works suggests that we may lose nearly 30 percent of our plant species alone by 2060.
The issue is not about monarch butterflies or any other organism; it’s about who we are as a species that has created a world in which we must intensively manage, or garden, every corner of earth to ensure each species’ existence. As climate change begins to hold sway across our landscapes, one wonders where our ethics rest. Is it OK that monarchs vanish? What about other species? How much can be lost before the built-in ecological redundancies that have spawned our evolution start to slow our own civilization? Without modern agriculture the planet could only support thirty million humans. We face rising demand in food to the tune of 14 percent in coming decades, yet we still farm dangerous monocultures that rely on other dangerous monocultures, namely honeybees, to sustain them—60 percent of honeybee colonies in the US are needed to pollinate just the almond crop in California. One-third of our food comes from pollinating insects, and these insects—commonly native bees that are more efficient pollinators than honeybees—lose their home ground to intense agriculture and suburban sprawl. Yet if we planted just a small percentage of fields with native wildflowers and hedgerows, yields would increase, pests would be mitigated as beneficial insect predators move in, and we’d be hitting two birds with one stone—increasing habitat for wildlife and securing our food supply. Studies from Michigan State University regarding blueberry production and the prairie STRIPs program at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa show a better way to farm that almost eliminates runoff, topsoil loss, and drastically cuts a farmer’s chemical and fuel costs via supporting beneficial insects and birds. And by supporting pollinators, like any of the four thousand native bee species, we can also increase seed production and quality.
This spring Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, along with leading scientists, called for a milkweed corridor stretching from Mexico to Canada, and in this is a larger call for native plantings to stretch alongside milkweed—plants that support thirty-five times the caterpillars as exotic species. Suburban gardens, city parks, and roadways should all stop trying to emulate the manicured environment of nineteenth-century English pastoral design that influences our largest cultivated crop—lawn—and instead emulate what gave us our nation’s fertile soil in the heartland. We need to stop religiously mowing our parks and highway edges, wasting taxpayer money, emitting greenhouse gases from machines more polluting than most cars, and find ourselves part of the places we say matter to us—our home, our country, our human and animal diversity.
At the eleventh hour the most recent farm bill had struck from its provisions a mandate for the federal government to keep an annual tab on insect pollinator numbers, which would have forced multiple agencies to address the decline in a group of organisms that provide hundreds of billions of dollars worth of free agricultural services. Combine this with a cut in Conservation Reserve Program funding and increased crop subsidies that encourage plowing up marginal prairie lands, and you have a bona fide recipe for disaster. It stands to reason that if we so easily allow monarchs to vanish, we have an ethical crisis on hand. So the question is this: Are we willing to foster milkweed and other native insect host and nectar plants for creatures on which most life is based, and are we willing to accept that these organisms are valuable beyond beauty, beyond function, and exist with a purpose as profound, unique, and multifaceted as our own? There’s as much at stake in nature, what’s left of it, as there is inside of us. The loss of monarchs is an ethical and even moral hurdle that we must face with a humble determination like that of this iconic butterfly—an insect whose life has spawned art and culture and now a call to live better on this incredible planet.