Trump administration delays monarch decision

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts off ruling on butterfly as endangered species

A tagged monarch butterfly in Illinois. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A tagged monarch butterfly in Illinois. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Ted Cox

The Trump administration is putting off a decision on whether to declare monarch butterflies an endangered species until after the next presidential election.

Environmental groups sued the federal agency years ago to force it to determine whether monarchs — which have been suffering declines in population — meet the qualifications of the Endangered Species Act.

A deadline was set for June 30, but the service declared late last month that it was delaying a formal determination until Dec. 15, 2020, after the next presidential election. According to a service news release, a court and the Center for Food Safety and Center for Biological Diversity agreed to the delay.

The Trump administration argued that it needed more time to gather hard data on monarch migration and population, while insisting it remains committed to preserving monarchs and other butterflies and plant pollinators in general.

“Conservation of the monarch and other at-risk species is a service priority,” said Charlie Wooley, acting Midwest regional director at the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Properly assessing the status of the monarch butterfly is a vast and complex undertaking. It involves significant data collection and analysis across a huge swath of North America. We thank the petitioners for agreeing to the additional time to ensure we get this right.”

Illinois environmentalists were dubious.

“It’s very illustrative of the lack of focus on science by the Trump administration,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.


“It’s very illustrative of the lack of focus on science by the Trump administration.”

Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The Illinois Farm Bureau, which is part of a 20-year Agriculture Action Plan designed to revive the monarch population, accepted the delay and the need to compile additional data.

“Fish and Wildlife is taking time to check the science and documentation of any conservation actions, so when a decision is made, it is legally defensible,” said Lyndsey Ramsey, associate director of natural and environmental resources, in a post on the IFB website. “The current Endangered Species Act works mostly through litigation, which is unfortunate, and something we know this administration is working to fix through rules that are to be issued this summer. We support their efforts.

“We, in Illinois, have been learning about ESA and how it works,” she added. “This is an interesting development dealing with a court decision and negotiations. We hope Fish and Wildlife is taking care to make the best decision.”

“We kind of agree with the Farm Bureau on this issue,” Walling said, in that there’s definitely a need for additional hard data.

Lindsay Keeney, IEC conservation director, added, “We don’t really have a position on the science because we don’t have access to current population studies.”

The question is whether that’s intentional, inadvertent, or just incompetent on the part of the administration.

“They’re just really behind on reviewing” potential endangered species, Keeney said. “The job of the Fish and Wildlife Service is to review those petitions and review the science.

“It’s not just monarchs they’re behind on,” she added, also citing lake sturgeon.

Members of the Illinois congressional delegation have charged that the Environmental Protection Agency is deliberately understaffed by the Trump administration, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is open to the same accusations. Greg Sheehan stepped down as head of the service last August amid charges that he was trying to tinker with the regulations in the Endangered Species Act to serve business interests.

Keeney said it was “an uncommon occurrence that they’re dragging their feet so often” on endangered species, adding, “I’m not sure it that’s lack of staffing. I’m sure that’s part of it.”

According to Walling, declaring monarchs an endangered species would have an “enormous” impact on many businesses. “If the monarch were listed as an endangered species,” she said, “that would be very pervasive in the way that would impact the everyday operations of a lot of businesses in America.”

Count famers among those businesses, which is one reason why the IEC and the Farm Bureau have clashed at times over that 20-year butterfly plan, as well as a bill backed by the IFB that would have basically ceded the state’s control over endangered species to the federal government. That bill passed in the House, but was never taken up by the Senate.

“In Illinois, it’s really cool that they made this big monarch plan and they’re interested and worrying about monarchs,” Keeney said. “But we’re more worried about pollinators as a whole and not this kind of specific species that everybody’s all about.”

Farmers, she added, “are still backing a lot of conservation practices that are detrimental to pollinators as a whole.”

According to Ramsey, state farm bureaus “are having pointed conversations with Fish and Wildlife” about the potential impact of monarchs being declared an endangered species. “Farmers need to feel confident that they won’t get tangled in ESA later on,” she added.