The farm bill and the precipitous decline of monarch butterflies

The fate of pollinators like monarchs is intertwined with federal policy.

  • A Monarch butterfly.

  • Like their cousins in the Great Plains, Western monarchs are suffering from a lack of habitat. The Xerces Society is working with federal agencies to create a database of some 5,000 milkweed-rich sites in the West, in hopes that the information can be used to balance grazing needs with milkweed conservation, which can be at odds because of the plant's toxicity to cattle. You can add to the database at


Benjamin Vogt moved to Nebraska in 2003 and unexpectedly fell in love with the prairie. It began when he noticed caterpillars on milkweed in his garden. His first reaction was to spray them into oblivion, but instead he went inside and began researching native plants and insects, which led him to discover what the cornfields around his house used to look like. Now, he wants to quit his teaching job, buy all the farmland he can afford and convert it to grassland. "The government's not going to do it," he says. "If anything's going to change, it's got to be private landowners."

Part of the reason Vogt wants to return farmland to prairie is to help save monarch butterflies, the black-and-orange pollinators that lay eggs only on milkweed. Every year, monarchs that summer east of the Rockies migrate thousands of miles to Mexico, stopping in the Great Plains to forage and breed. In 1996, overwintering monarchs blanketed 45 acres of Mexican forest. This year, they covered only 1.6 acres, suggesting that their numbers – already at a record low – have dropped again by half, to about 33 million. One of North America's great wildlife migrations may be in its death throes.

Monarch declines were once blamed primarily on Mexican deforestation. But not today: "The forest is as well protected as it's ever been," says Mace Vaughan, pollinator program director for The Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation group. Blame has shifted to the loss of milkweed in the butterflies' summer range. The plant declined by 58 percent in Plains states from 1999 to 2010. Monarch populations dropped 81 percent in the same period.

The $956 billion Farm Bill – signed into law Feb. 7 after four years of debate – includes a few measures to help monarchs and other pollinators. A provision designed to discourage sodbusting, for example, limits farmers' ability to insure crops against bad weather or disease on freshly plowed grasslands in Montana, the Dakotas and three other states. The bill also reauthorizes "pollinator protection" clauses that advocates fought to get in the 2008 Farm Bill, including mandated research and monitoring.

Yet the new bill also maintains incentives for farmers to plant ever more corn and soybeans – policies that have caused researchers to project a rate of Northern Plains grassland destruction greater than that of the Amazon rainforest. Direct subsidies for corn and soybeans have been replaced with subsidized crop insurance and "price guarantees," but critics argue that the end result is the same. Plus, $6 billion was cut from conservation programs, and the maximum acreage that can be enrolled nationally in the Conservation Reserve Program – which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive fields out of production – was reduced by 8 million acres. Even when the CRP is strongly funded, participation is voluntary; hundreds of thousands of acres of milkweed-rich CRP land have been plowed under in recent years due to corn and soy incentives.

Another powerful incentive is the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates that more domestic gasoline be made from biofuels like corn-based ethanol. Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas insect ecologist, points out that 20 million new acres of corn and soybeans were planted in the last seven years, compared to 9.5 million in the previous decade. "This increase is largely due to the ethanol mandate," he writes.

Ethanol subsidies may help struggling farms, but Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., argue that they also raise food costs and encourage sodbusting. The pair co-authored a bill in December to eliminate the corn ethanol mandate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, proposed cutting ethanol requirements by 16 percent, but for now, subsidies remain.

Still, plowing up prairie doesn't necessarily condemn monarchs. Commercial crops can be grown alongside milkweed, and were for many years before the introduction of genetically modified super-crops like Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, which are engineered to survive chemical showers that kill almost everything else – including milkweed. The U.S. government could regulate these crops and their companion herbicides more strictly, as the European Union does, but the enormous influence of agribusiness leaves little hope that the feds will move quickly enough to rescue the swiftly declining butterflies.

Instead, the task may fall to the private sector or to states, which can help by simply not mowing roadsides. Laurie Davies Adams of the Pollinator Partnership says that after publicity about plummeting monarch populations, the president of one large company asked her whether planting milkweed around his factories would help. Yes! she replied.

Farmers and landowners can also help. The Xerces Society is working with federal agencies like the Forest Service to protect milkweed habitat on public land (see map, above), and helping vendors produce more milkweed seeds for gardeners like Benjamin Vogt. "If the ship's going down ecologically," Vogt says, "I want to scream and rant and rail. For me, that means buying as much land as we can and reverting it to prairie. I see it as a moral and ethical imperative."

Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Mar 18, 2014 04:51 PM
Amazing now insects are going extinct from what humans are doing. Another canary in the coal mine we continue to ignore.More and more chemicals, then GMO'S so you can spray death on the crop we eat ,only the GMO crop lives, everthing else dies, diversity is diminished, we eat more chemicals, and the insects die from poison, or in the case of this beautiful butterfly because it has nothing to eat and use for reproduction.More and more toxins, even the soil is dying, insects, birds that feed on them, millions of acres of nothing , but one crop species, biological deserts, it's illegal to shoot protected species but not to poison them or destroy all their habitats, monsanto is exempt from liability, its all about making the most money, with no regard for anything else, where are the stewards of the land?A war on nature.All public subsidies should end for this type of farming, we should not reward this destruction ,and un-sustainable practices.But subsidize organic farming and ranching that is. We know the money interests will not let that happen, and the busy and apathetic voters do nothing.
Don L Watson
Don L Watson Subscriber
Mar 19, 2014 06:59 AM
Right-on Kirk! Too bad our politically corrupt country, filled with narcissistic citizens disallows this from happening.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Mar 20, 2014 04:26 PM
Unfortunately it's not just monarchs that are declining and dying because of our chemical intensive industrial agricultural system.All our Prairie grouse are declining, and threatened, As well as most Prairie species of birds and animals. Mostly from loss of habitat,which means to many acres of monocultures, but also from chemical pollution. And millions of acres of biological deserts created by this chemical agricultural monoculture system .It seems we have not learned much from our negative pass experience with the chemical DDT.The EPA is not doing the necessary studies to test for potential dangers from hundreds of new pesticides and herbicides. But guess who is doing the studies, the very chemical companies that stand to gain from the profits from selling them, Monsanto.Now even bees are dying from chemical farming agriculture. It seems the farmer and rancher is taught by society that to be a good farmer he needs to make the most money he can, and that now means no other plant or insect can live on his land besides the one they planted.There now is virtually zero tolerance for anything else growing, this is insane. This then leads to using more and more chemicals without regard to anything else besides making the most profit. Sustainability, a clean environment ,healthy nutritious food, seems to take the back seat. To change this, takes a engaged, knowledgeable, informed public that has the time to care. That doesn't seem to be happening. People are under the illusion that we elect and decide, and are in control, democracy. But the reality is we get to normally choose between only two candidates of someone else's choosing.Not really a choice of our choosing ,is that really democracy? Most of the laws and regulations ,and bills,then that representative , that we didn't truly choose ,supports and passes, the general public is clueless about,and doesn't even know what his or her's chosen representative voted on or supported. Is that really democracy? and who is actually in charge or running things? The representative represents the corporate interests that give him the most money, and against the interests of the majority,all the while they think they are representing them , while nothing ever changes for the better.We then get frustrated , and vote them out, expecting a change, without really changing the system, and vote for another candidate that we really didn't choose , and nothing really changes, the definition of Lunacy.