The Most Famous Butterfly Underlines the Importance of Incentives for Endangered Species

Monarch butterfly enjoying milkweed. Photo courtesy of USFWS Midwest Region.

This article was originally published in The Hill

Today may be Endangered Species Day, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider one species that’s not yet on a formal at-risk list. The monarch butterfly has been spotted across the country in recent weeks on its annual migration north, a round trip that takes four generations to complete. Along the way to Canada, females will lay eggs on milkweed—the single type of plant that supports monarch caterpillars—before their descendants eventually flutter south to forests of central Mexico for winter.

By the time the monarch heads north again next year, the federal government will have decided whether to list it under the Endangered Species Act. Populations of the orange and black butterfly, whose range spans the lower 48, have declined drastically over recent decades, and a listing decision is expected by December.

The wide-ranging and instantly recognizable monarch underlines the importance of getting incentives right for imperiled species. The insect will need a vast amount of flowering habitat to recover and thrive, but the presence of federally listed species often penalizes farmers, ranchers and other ordinary citizens who provide habitat for them. A listing for the butterfly, therefore, could complicate incentives to conserve it.

Policy shouldn’t make imperiled species a liability by threatening to limit land uses where they are found. Instead, it should focus on rewarding landowners who participate in recovery efforts.

A classic example of how an imperiled species becomes a liability for landowners is the red-cockaded woodpecker. The bird lives in longleaf pine forests across parts of the South and has been listed as endangered since 1970. By one estimate, the discovery of a single colony of the endangered woodpecker could keep a landowner from harvesting $200,000 in timber. It’s little surprise, then, that a 2004 study found that landowners who thought they were within one mile of red-cockaded woodpeckers were 25 percent more likely to cut their timber, preemptively destroying habitat “so that the existing values of their property could be protected from the Endangered Species Act-related land use limitations.”

When it comes to the monarch butterfly, milkweed is essential. The flowering plant long thrived in buffers around crop fields or along farm fencerows. But advances in agriculture allow farming operations to spray more for weeds since many modern crops are herbicide-resistant. The result is more efficient food production—but less milkweed and other nectar plants for pollinators. Drought and other weather events, some related to climate change, also threaten the butterfly, as does logging at Mexican overwintering sites.

In March, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a “candidate conservation agreement with assurances” whereby state transportation departments and energy industry partners will help conserve and plant milkweed and other nectar sources. In return for adhering to the plan, which took five years to negotiate, the partners will face no additional regulation if the butterfly is listed.

Timothy Male of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center has noted that “in exchange for conservation that provides a net benefit to the monarch butterfly, the participants have the ability to continue routine management even when that might harm a smaller number of butterflies.”

These agreements help conserve species—this one could ultimately cover up to 26 million acres, roughly the size of Kentucky—but they also reveal how the incentives produced by the Endangered Species Act fall short in the first place. Complex planning can incorporate big players such as the transportation and energy sectors into species recovery, but the unfortunate reality is that endangered species remain a liability for many farmers and other private landowners. Some policy tools, such as safe harbor agreements, can provide regulatory relief to property owners, but they’re costly, time consuming and limited in scope.

If the monarch becomes listed, how likely are farmers to plant milkweed if they know it could attract butterflies that bring restrictions on how they can use their land?

Policymakers should consider ways to give private landowners better incentives for maintaining habitat in the first place—perhaps by paying them to plant milkweed and other flowers, as the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, a program involving the Environmental Defense Fund and several other partners, aims to do.

Last winter’s monarch population count revealed a roughly 50 percent decline from one year ago. The sooner government policy can make rare species an asset rather than a liability for private citizens, the better the prospects will be for the butterfly and other imperiled species.

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