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August 4, 2018
Why Treaty Protection is Needed for Migratory Pollinators
Meena Miriam Yust
Source: Common Dreams
Imagine a state of laws where murder is illegal if the victim is clad in a blue shirt, but
legal if the victim is not wearing blue. A system where robbery is illegal if the victim
has white skin but legal if the victim has dark skin. Such a system would be an
outrage in human society. But this is the system of laws we have created for others.
Other species, that is. For hundreds of years we have had treaties protecting
migratory birds who traverse countries, but no similar protections for non-feathered
fliers who also cross borders, such as butterflies. Butterflies are not protected under
any treaty, and consequently their populations are in danger. Unlike birds, butterflies
are a member of the class Insecta, along with bees and other pollinators.
When a German study reported last year a more than 75 percent insect decline in
protected areas over 27 years, the news was particularly disturbing because insects
are prodigious pollinators. Perhaps even more concerning, scientists have
determined that the Sixth Mass Extinction is underway.
On the American continent, we have the sad declining numbers of the beautiful
monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Striking in appearance, these orange-and-
black-winged beauties are also a biological phenomenon: their migration covers a
journey of 3,000 miles, three countries and multiple generations, from their winter
home in Mexico to as far north as Canada . . . and then another 3,000 miles on the
return trip. A recent article in Science analyzes their plight and the complexity of
threats against survival. A population declining for decades, it is threatened by
habitat loss, pesticides, extreme weather, disease, and much variation in migratory
success. Reproduction along the migratory route is particularly vulnerable as
monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed for survival, and it has diminished.
In March this year counts by Mexican officials revealed a population decline for the
second consecutive year. Only nine colonies were found, reduced from 13 last year.
A declining population since 1994 has now made their migration an endangered
biological phenomenon according to scientists.
A longitudinal study conducted over 38 years and recently published in Global
Change Biology, has traced the birthplace of monarch butterflies in North America by
examining chemical compositions of wing tissue samples. Focused exclusively on the
generation of monarchs born in North America that continue their migration to
overwinter in Mexico, it established regional climate as the greatest predictor of
change in natal origin. Monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed, and the most important
implication of this study is that planting milkweed hosts solely in the Midwest is not
sufficient. Climate change forces the butterflies to breed in other regions.
Thus, to sustain monarch populations, abundant milkweed is needed not only in the
Midwest but throughout the United States. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey has
concluded that as many as 1.8 billion additional milkweed stems are needed to return
these butterflies to a sustainable population.
Unfortunately, despite these needs, international law promises little aid for the
monarch. The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), backed by the U.N.
Environment Program, aims to “conserve terrestrial, aquatic and avian migratory
species throughout their range.” While the monarch butterfly has been added to the
list of species for conservation, neither the U.S. nor Mexico nor Canada is a party to
In 2007, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation held a conference in Morelia,
Mexico, leading to the creation of the North American Monarch Conservation Plan
(NAMCP), which proposes multilateral action between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.
The NAMCP is certainly a step in the right direction, outlining objectives for butterfly
conservation, yet it does not have the ability to wield the power of enforcement
mechanisms in a treaty, nor does it set forth specific mechanisms or measures to
achieve its ends. The need for an enforceable treaty thus remains.
There is also the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild
Fauna and Flora (CITES), entered into force on July 1, 1973. It is designed to
“ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not
threaten their survival.” The United States, Mexico, and Canada are all parties.
Monarch butterflies are not currently listed under CITES for protection. As CITES
regulates trade, and monarch butterflies are generally not hunted in quantity, it is
unlikely that CITES could ever help monarchs.
In 2014, a petition was filed to protect monarch butterflies under the Endangered
Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision is due in June 2019. If
granted, protection under the Endangered Species Act would help monarchs in the U.
S. Yet this attacks only half the problem, as it does not cover Mexico where they
return for the winter.
Monarch butterflies have essentially slipped in the cracks. There is no treaty
protecting them and they desperately need cross-border protection as has been
afforded migratory birds for hundreds of years through the treaties in North America
What is crucial is the creation of a carefully drafted Migratory Insect Treaty, tailored to
address the unique challenges facing insects like the monarch butterfly. Such a
treaty would protect monarchs, whose cross-border travels span three countries –
Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. – and who face challenges in each country from illegal
logging of overwintering habitat in Mexico to lack of milkweed and flowers further
north, and climate effects in all three. Across the Atlantic, it could also protect the
painted lady (Vanessa cardui), a cousin of the monarch. Present on every continent
except South America and the Antarctic, it is famous for one group’s migration from
North Africa to as far as the Arctic and back – an amazing round-trip of 9,000 miles. A
migratory treaty would include measures and enforcement mechanisms for each
country, to ensure protection of a species with unique needs, and also allow other
species to be added later.
Thus, in aid of monarch butterflies, the United States would be obligated to return
native milkweed plants alongside highways, particularly those that previously housed
native milkweed. And Mexico would have to undertake measures to curb
deforestation of the overwintering habitat in Mexico. Both are necessary for the
In addition, the ecological and economic benefits due to insects are also profound.
Insects provide the US with $57 billion worth of ecological services, a figure thought by
many to be an underestimate. Humans have increased the rate of insect extinction
exponentially, endangering the almost 80 percent of the world’s crops that require
pollination. Consequently, treaty protection is also economically important. Legal
cover protects habitat for the insects in their countries of migration; in turn, the insects
serve as necessary pollinators.
Insects also have been found to have immunological, analgesic, antibacterial,
anesthetic, and anti-rheumatic properties. Eight hundred species of terrestrial
arthropods, the phylum that includes insects, show anticancer activity. Promising
anticancer drugs have been isolated from the wings of Asian sulfur butterflies
(Catopsilia crocale). Some insects might even have qualities as yet unknown, making
it vital to ensure each species of insect survives.
Vladimir Nabokov, the author of “Lolita,” was also a lepidopterist. It was he who
named the tiny Karner blue butterfly (now endangered), whose life cycle, and thus
survival, depends on the blue lupine flower. He described its stunning beauty in his
“A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand,
their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny
orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin's shed
rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper
surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes. . .''
When beauty is lost, the world is a diminished place.