Are we witnessing the extinction of the monarch butterfly?

Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images

Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images

A man-made paradise for pollinators stretches like sunshine over 5 acres in Concord, Massachusetts.

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There is one creature conspicuously absent from the group of insects flitting from flower to flower: the monarch butterfly. The insect's decline is a fairly recent development. It's almost like watching an extinction unfold in real time.

"We know that many populations of monarchs have completely crashed," Dr. Bryan Windmiller, of Zoo New England, said. "I know out west there have been declines of more than 90 percent in just recent years of monarch butterflies."

In Massachusetts, the extent of the collapse is unknown but, anecdotally, something's going on.

In the 20 or so minutes we spent in a field specifically planted to attract insects such as monarchs, and on a day perfect for butterfly activity, we saw exactly one.

"Little bit by little bit, we've been losing pollinator habitat," Emilie Wilder, of Zoo New England, said. "But little bit by little bit, we can also bring it back."

Loss of native plants that monarchs depend on explains part of the population collapse. There's also the long, risky journey the butterflies take each year to Mexico, where they spend the winter.

John Linehan, the president of Zoo New England, says modern farming isn't helping either.

"Some of these pesticides, especially the glyphosates, are causing the demise not only of monarchs but lots and lots of other really critical pollinators," he said.

Part of the zoo's mission these days is educating visitors on the critical role pollinators such as monarchs play.

Simply put, they make possible the produce we eat.

"We have to be responsible in what we're using on our land and how it's impacting all these other species because we do rely on them," Linehan said.

The national alarm over monarchs first went off five years ago. That's when the federal government was petitioned to name the butterfly a threatened species.

By this summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to make a decision on whether to list the monarch butterfly as an endangered species. But that decision has now been pushed out to late next year.

The agency said it needs more time to study what is a complex issue.

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