A monarch butterfly in a garden in Santa Cruz.
(Courtesy Alasdair Drysdale)

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, other lawmakers aim to free up $120M-plus to protect monarch butterfly from extinction

A pair of Democratic lawmakers — including U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, whose district includes Santa Cruz County — introduced two bills Wednesday to tap federal dollars to help protect the struggling species.

Trying to stave off extinction of the western monarch butterfly, a pair of Democratic lawmakers — including U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, whose district includes Santa Cruz County — took steps Wednesday to try to free up $120 million-plus to protect the struggling species.

Wednesday’s announcement comes on the heels of federal officials deciding in December that the monarch, despite a plummeting population, will not be considered for endangered species protection until possibly as late as 2024. Early numbers from the volunteer-led Western Monarch Thanksgiving count last year estimated the Western migratory population of monarch butterflies to be at an all-time low, with possibly fewer than 10,000 left.

Only 550 butterflies were counted at the eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz over Thanksgiving weekend. That marked a big drop from the 2,000 counted at Natural Bridges in the 2019 tally, and pales in comparison to the numbers consistently observed at the site in the 1980s: 120,000-plus, according to numbers shared by the park.

The two bills being put forth by Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, along with Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, are the bipartisan, bicameral Monarch Action, Recovery, and Conservation of Habitat (MONARCH) Act, as well as the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act.

“The MONARCH Act would provide urgent protections for the struggling western monarch butterfly, an iconic and important butterfly whose population has dropped by 99% since the 1980s,” Panetta’s office said in a news release. “This legislation would authorize $62.5 million for projects aimed at conserving the western monarch and an additional $62.5 million to implement the Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan, which was prepared by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in January 2019.”

The funding for each effort would come in five annual installments of $12.5 million.

The Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act, meanwhile, “would establish a federal grant program available to state departments of transportation and Native American tribes to carry out pollinator-friendly practices [for monarchs] on roadsides and highway rights-of-way,” according to the release, which also says the “legislation would help address the steep decline of pollinator populations, which poses a serious threat to California farmers and the American food supply.”

The butterflies face a host of human-induced threats, including habitat loss, insecticides, wildfires and climate change, which affects their habitats and migration patterns.

“For generations, we on the central coast of California have had a front-row seat to the migration of the monarch butterfly. Unfortunately, we are now witnessing the dramatic decline and potential extinction of this magnificent pollinator all across North America,” Panetta said. “Our legislation is a small example of how we must continue to fight the effects of the climate crisis by working to preserve the future of a species that means so much to our ecosystem and to us on the Central Coast.”

The butterflies are an important part of ecosystems, pollinating flowers and serving as a food source for many insects and other animals.

“Recovering their populations by conserving habitat before they go extinct is critical,” said A. Marm Kilpatrick, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. “Conserving habitat through the MONARCH Act of 2021 would bring us one step closer to protecting important ecosystems for western monarchs, and ensuring the valuable ecosystem services the habitat and the species provide.”