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Monarch butterflies become a powerful symbol for justice at the U.S./Mexico border (commentary)

  • Monarch butterflies have become a strong symbol for advocates of biological diversity and human rights at the U.S./Mexico border.
  • Though its population appears to be at the brink of a U.S. endangered species listing, their conservation along the southern border has been controversial since the former presidential administration’s wall building effort bulldozed habitat at the National Butterfly Center without properly notifying the center about the construction.
  • Drawing parallels between the plight of the species and that of human migrants trapped at the U.S./Mexico border, immigration rights protests have begun featuring images of monarchs and people making butterfly shapes with their hands.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Monarch butterflies could go extinct, much to the dismay of environmentalists in the U.S. and Mexico. Monarch butterfly populations in Mexico have dropped 22% in the last year, according to a new World Wildlife Fund report. Eastern monarch butterflies migrate from Canada to the U.S. and down to Mexico to spend their winters in the forests of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. The report found that the number of trees lost from these forests tripled in the last year. When the winter ends, monarchs then return north, passing through the U.S. to Canada and breeding along the way.

Herbicides and the loss of milkweed plants, where monarchs lay their eggs, has worsened the decline of the insect. Monarchs have declined up to 72% over the past decade, with the western population dropping from 10 million in the 1980s to just 1,914 butterflies in 2021. In July 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the monarch butterfly as endangered, but the U.S. government has still not protected the insect. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they did not have the resources to conserve the species. Environmental groups sued the government agency for their failure to protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act.

Mural at the National Butterfly Center by Anat Ronen.
Mural at the National Butterfly Center by Anat Ronen.

Last month, the U.S. government listed the prostrate milkweed, a rare species of the milkweed plant, as endangered and mandated its protection in critical habitat along the U.S.-Mexico border wall in South Texas, which angered proponents for renewed border wall construction. The Texas state government has been one of the staunchest opponents of the conservation of milkweed, saying that listing the species causes “a significant impact on national security by preventing Texas’s efforts to address the border crisis.” Environmentalists countered that the protection of milkweed found along the border wall is critical given that this habitat is the first stop the monarchs make in the U.S. after spending the winter in Mexico.

The conservation of monarch butterflies in the region has been controversial since the Trump administration bulldozed the butterfly’s habitat at the National Butterfly Center in South Texas without properly notifying the center about the construction. Tensions heightened when the director of the center was threatened with sexual violence, and then again when the center was forced to close following accusations of human trafficking by far right extremists.

Environmentalists have used the monarch butterfly to rally support for conservation in the borderlands. The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity used the monarch butterfly on political posters during protests against the construction of Trump’s border wall which threatened nearly 100 endangered species. Some environmentalists have hosted butterfly festivals to inspire children to become interested in nature. Others have created citizen science projects with the butterfly to persuade landowners to get onboard with conservation.

Monarch butterflies are important cultural symbols, too. The butterfly’s arrival symbolizes the return of the souls of ancestors and coincides with the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a celebration of loved ones who have passed away. Monarch butterflies are sacred to Indigenous groups on both sides of the border.

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).
A monarch butterfly. Image by John Banks via Pexels (public domain).

Immigrant rights activists have drawn parallels between the annual migration of monarchs from Mexico to the U.S. and the journey of human migrants across the border. Latinx activists such as Favianna Rodriguez and Julio Salgado have created political artwork that uses the monarch butterfly as a symbol of migrant justice. At immigration rights protests, people put their thumbs together with their hands outspread to make a butterfly shape. Recent films Aye Mariposa and Son of Monarchs also use the butterfly to tell stories about Mexican-American cultural identity and migration.

Given the immense cultural value of monarch butterflies, the insect has the potential to bring together environmentalists and immigrant rights advocates in the borderlands. The protection of the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act would not just save a beloved insect, but also recognize the connection between biological and cultural diversity.


Dr. Meg Perret is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Mahindra Humanities Center. She writes about the connection between social and environmental justice and has a PhD from Harvard University.

See related:

Here’s how science is trying to conserve the monarch butterfly’s forests

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