Jul 10, 2015

Weedkiller blamed for decline of moarch butterflies in Teaneck and across U.S.

Don Torino remembers past summers when monarch butterflies could be seen in every corner of the Teaneck Creek Conservancy as they made their famed 6,000-mile round trip between Canada and Mexico.

But their numbers have plummeted in the past few years, to the point where a sighting of a single orange and black monarch can lead to email chains and Facebook posts.

Don Torino, the Bergen County Audubon Society's president, pushing a wheelbarrow as volunteers planted milkweed at Teaneck Creek Conservancy. Milkweed is key to the monarch butterfly's survival.

"If I can count five in the last two years, that's a lot," said Torino, president of the Bergen County Audubon Society, who sports colorful tattoos of butterflies on his arms. "They're not here anymore."

It's not just Teaneck. The monarch population has declined 90 percent in the U.S., from 1 billion in 1996 to about 100 million today, according to the federal government. While monarchs have been hit hard by a number of factors, much of their decline has been attributed to the gradual loss of milkweed, the only plant a monarch's larvae will eat.

The drop in the butterfly population has not gone unnoticed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which launched the Save the Monarch campaign this year, in part because it is one of the few insects that can pollinate over long distances, helping plant colonies to thrive.

Key to the effort is reestablishing milkweed. The skyrocketing use of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in many herbicides, including the widely popular Roundup, has been blamed for milkweed's decline.

But while the Obama administration has been praised for the campaign, it has been criticized by environmentalists for turning down a formal petition last month to limit glyphosate use.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency apparently plans to study the monarch migration to extinction," said Sylvia Fallon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which had asked the agency for greater regulations on glyphosate. "Everyone loves the monarchs, including the Obama White House. But love isn't going to save monarchs from glyphosate."

Although Roundup has been around since the Monsanto Co. introduced it in the 1970s, its use by farmers has increased exponentially in recent years, since Monsanto introduced genetically modified crops like corn and soybeans that are not harmed by glyphosate. These "Roundup Ready" crops have become popular, especially at large Midwestern farms, because it's easier to kill weeds, including milkweed.

A Monsanto spokeswoman would not say whether Roundup has affected the monarch population, but the company has pledged this year to donate $4 million to restore milkweed habitats.

The White House released plans in May to create a 1,500-mile "butterfly highway" in the country's midsection by planting milkweed and restoring habitats friendly to migrating monarchs.

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