Green Exploitation of the Monarch Butterfly

Butterflies offer powerful imagery for environmental groups looking to advance their agendas. After all, who doesn’t want to save these beautiful creatures? Surely green activists could leverage those desires to advance voluntary efforts to create butterfly habitat. But the actions of some groups indicates that they would rather exploit the butterflies to gain policy victories in Washington, even if the butterflies suffer as a result.

Conservationists rightly point out that monarch butterflies face challenges associated with habitat loss because there are not enough of the type of plants that they need for food and reproduction. In particular, these creatures feed and reproduce among milkweed, a flower that many people consider to be nothing more than an undesirable weed. As a result, farmers, homeowners, and other property owners have removed these plants, leaving less habitat for the butterflies. 

Part of the solution is rather simple: educate people about the value of this plant. If we can transform what people think about it, we might just get more individuals to plant it rather than pull it up. 

A massive educational campaign pushed by environmental groups, which collectively have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal, could make the critical difference. Some groups are working this angle, but too many others would rather spend the money to lobby for more government controls on businesses and property owners.

The green lobby’s agenda includes suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prevent approval of a new herbicide formulation because they say it will enable more destruction of milkweeds. They are also calling for the listing of the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It may be counterintuitive, but both actions may actually undermine butterfly habitat and contribute to its demise.

The greens’ suggestion that banning this weed killer will help butterflies is highly questionable. First, it certainly won’t encourage anyone to plant milkweed, nor does it change the fact that farmers still need to control weeds whether it’s with this herbicide, another one, or through manual controls.

The key is finding a way to have both: high-yield, affordable food production and species habitat.

Ironically, policies that reduce agricultural yields—such as pesticide bans—increase pressure to convert more land to agricultural use, leaving less land for wildlife. As researcher Indur Goklany notes, if we did not have high-yield agriculture—supported by pesticides, herbicides, and genetically engineered crops and we still farmed the way we did back in 1910, we’d have to plant more than three times more land than we do now to get the same amount of food. “Quite possibly,” Goklany notes in The Water Revolution: Practical Solutions to Water Scarcity, “the increase in land productivity averted a potential catastrophe for U.S. wildlife and perhaps even biodiversity more generally.”

Moreover, the greens’ blind suggestion that we start banning herbicides ignores the fact that they actually have important environmental benefits, in addition to producing high yields. Herbicides, for example, allow farmers to pursue no-till farming, which means reduced soil erosion and less runoff-related water pollution. 

The second policy idea—placing the butterflies on the endangered species list—is even dumber because it will encourage more habitat destruction and deter people who might otherwise voluntarily plant milkweed. 

That’s because under the ESA, if you have habitat on your property that might help an endangered or threatened species, the government can prevent you from using your land. So, if you are a farmer whose land might help the butterfly, you have a perverse incentive to destroy the habitat before regulators discover it. And you certainly won’t want to create any such habitat and risk losing the value of your land. Even homeowners may be deterred from planting milkweed in their yards for fear they may lose rights to their property as well.

The fact that most green groups appear to have not acknowledged these realities is curious. And the fact that they leverage the monarch butterfly for their counter-productive agenda is simply shameful.