Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was scheduled to determine whether the monarch butterfly warranted listing as an endangered species.

That didn’t happen, not because the North American monarch population suddenly improved dramatically, but because the deadline for this important decision was extended for about 18 months, to December 15, 2020. With the additional time, biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations will continue to collect information on the monarch’s status.

A lot of people care about this, because monarchs are perhaps the most recognized of all butterfly species. But as familiar as monarchs are, they are much less common than they were at one time.

Two years ago, North Dakota Outdoors, the state Game and Fish Department’s magazine, featured a story on the monarch’s status in the state, which indicated the North American monarch population, based on surveys of wintering grounds in Mexico, was estimated at 1 billion in 1996. The eventually dwindled to estimated 35 million, but has improved somewhat in recent years.

Sandra Johnson, Game and Fish Department conservation biologist, said that while there are a number of potential reasons for the decline in monarch numbers, such as disease and predation, loss of milkweed habitat is near the top of the list. “Without milkweed, there are no more monarchs,” Johnson said at the time.

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North Dakota has several species of milkweed, all of which are native. The two that are most familiar are common milkweed and showy milkweed.

After mating, the female monarch lays eggs on milkweed plants, typically one egg per plant. Once hatched, monarch larvae feed exclusively on the plant. Greg Link, Game and Fish Department conservation and communications division chief, said that state and federal agencies and conservation organizations were working together to determine the monarch’s specific habitat requirements. “State and federal partners are banding together and pooling resources to develop and implement monitoring efforts to more accurately assess and determine how monarch population and distribution trends are doing,” Link said. “Hopefully, these efforts bear fruit in turning monarch population trends in an upward direction, and thereby prevent listing.”

North Dakota and other states are charged with development of monarch management plans and strategies to further conservation of monarch butterflies and other pollinators. The North Dakota Monarch and Native Pollinator Strategy outlines actions to increase the monarch population in its summer range and further pollinator conservation in the state.

Wildlife managers understand that listing a species as federally threatened or endangered may restrict certain actions on private and public lands. The cost of protection or restoration of a listed species is often far greater than preventing or stemming the decline in the first place.

“No one wants the monarch butterfly on the endangered species list because of the restrictions that come with managing public and private land,” Johnson said. “And no one wants it going extinct in 20 years.”