A monarch butterfly is perched next to an adult caterpillar on a milkweed plant, the only plant the monarch will lay eggs on and the caterpillar will eat. Cathy Keifer / Getty Images By Tara Lohan Fall used to be the time when millions of monarch butterflies in North America would journey upwards of 2,000 miles to warmer winter habitat. But these days the iconic butterfly’s numbers are dwindling. The western migratory population is down 97% since the 1980s — a survey this month found fewer than 2,000 — and the eastern population has slipped 80% in just the past 15 years. Because of these grim numbers the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in December that monarchs deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act, but it would still be several years before the butterflies were listed as threatened or endangered. It’s time the species may not have. Halting the precipitous decline of North American monarch populations hinges, in large part, on milkweed. It’s the sole plant the caterpillars eat and where monarchs lay their eggs. It’s also quickly disappearing with increasing urbanization and pesticide use. Since monarchs can’t survive without milkweed, conservation efforts have focused on planting more […]

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