Monarchs are disappearing, yet California has not listed them as endangered. Why not?

Now is not a good time to be a monarch butterfly — at least not in California.

As much as we celebrate monarchs — we hold festivals in their honor, name schools after them and even dress up like them for Halloween — we’re poisoning them with pesticides, mowing their milkweed and cutting down trees where they roost.

Unlike the Eastern monarch, whose population has rebounded recently, the Western monarch in California has been decimated.

Its numbers have declined more than 99 percent since the 1980s.

If this keeps up, in a generation or two the chance of sighting a monarch in the wild could be about as good as winning the lotto.

There have been efforts to help, including a push to plant milkweed, which is critical to monarchs’ survival.

That’s not enough.

One of the most powerful actions needs to happen in Sacramento. It’s time to declare monarchs a California endangered species.

Except there’s a problem: The language of the Endangered Species Act is so imprecise it’s not even clear if it covers insects.

“The statute itself on its own terms applies to vertebrates (like mammals and reptiles and birds and fish) and aquatic invertebrates (like abalone and crustaceans), but it doesn’t explicitly cover terrestrial invertebrates, like insects such as the monarch butterfly. ... That means that the monarch can’t receive protection under state law from human actions that destroy habitat, or even that directly kill monarch butterflies. In other words, one of the most important tools the state has to try and protect and restore endangered species may not be available for the monarch,” attorney Eric Biber writes on the website Legal Planet.

On the other hand, the Xerces Society, which has been a leader in the effort to protect monarchs, believes the act does cover insects, and it’s petitioned to have four species of native bumblebees listed.

We hope the Xerces Society is right.

Either way, this should not be a gray area subject to legal debate. Yet not even the state Department of Fish and Wildlife gave us a definitive answer, despite numerous inquiries and the fact that department’s own website lists invertebrates as being under the protection of California’s Endangered Species Act.

If that’s the case, why aren’t monarchs on the list?

Because, with apologies to the Mohave ground squirrel, the desert slender salamander and the San Clemente Island bird’s-foot trefoil, those species are no more deserving of protection than monarch butterflies.

Monarchs, after all, are one of the most recognizable species around — so much so that they’re called the ambassador of nature.

They’re also a boon to many local economies; butterfly tourism brings in revenue to coastal communities like Pacific Grove, Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara, where migrating butterflies roost during the winter — albeit in greatly depleted numbers.

One particularly depressing example: At Gaviota State Beach near Santa Barbara, 8,950 monarchs were counted in 2013; 1,765 in 2016; and in 2017 — after the area was logged — only six were counted.

It’s absurd that they would not be eligible for listing under the state’s Endangered Species Act, especially given the current political climate in Washington, D.C. , where the “Trump effect” is weakening protections that could aid the recovery of species threatened with extinction.

Conservation groups have petitioned for the Western monarch to be listed as a federally threatened species — a decision is due this summer — but the Trump administration has proposed changes that would weaken the Endangered Species Act. One of those would no longer automatically offer threatened species the same protections provided to endangered species.

“Plus, some Republicans in Congress want to abolish the law in its entirety. So the prospect for federal monarch protection is bleak,” writes Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

While the federal picture may be bleak, more can be done at the state and local levels.

The National Wildlife Federation, for example, is urging mayors to pledge to help monarchs survive by agreeing to carry out at least three of 25 action items.

Many of the items are basically PR for butterflies (issue a proclamation ... convene a meeting with gardening leaders .. host a butterfly festival); others aim to improve habitat by, for example, regulating the use of pesticides and changing landscaping ordinances to require more native plants, including milkweed, which is critical to monarch reproduction.

So far, only nine cities in California have signed on, including Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Garden Grove and Palm Springs.

This is not a big ask; more cities should join, including Central Valley communities on the monarchs’ migration path.

And communities that depend on butterfly tourism — are you listening, Pismo Beach? — definitely should.

As important as local steps can be, the state needs a consistent plan — not a patchwork of policies. Protection through the state’s Endangered Species Act is the best way to ensure that.

If the language needs to be clarified, officials should get that done, because if the California Endangered Species Act can’t protect the Western monarch butterfly, it’s failing in its duty.

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