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Butterflies Are Vanishing In The Warming American West

A butterfly sitting on a flower.
Jeffrey Glassberg
North American Butterfly Association
The butterfly is Lycaena rubidus, the ruddy copper. That's among our "top 50" declining species.

Yet another study is showing an alarming decline in butterflies across the warming American West.

The latest research, led by the University of Nevada, found a 1.6% annual reduction in the number of butterflies observed across more than 70 locations in the West over the past four decades. And it suggests warming during fall months in particular is driving the die-off.

“The pervasive declines that we report advance our understanding of climate change impacts and suggest that a new approach is needed for butterfly conservation in the region focused on suites of species with shared habitat or host associations,” the authors wrote.

Matthew Forister, an insect ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno and lead author of the study published last week in the journal Science, says his team's research focused on wildlands spanning the region.

“The fact that butterflies are suffering out there in the open spaces, which includes protected parks, etc., means that we should look close to hand to better manage the lands that we actually can influence,” Forister said.

He says individuals can help recreate safe environments for insects in places such as backyards and city parks by, for example, weeding by hand instead of using poisonous herbicides.

“We can also make better choices about the plants we put in these areas,” Forister said. “More natives and plants with a diversity of flowering times throughout the summer can support more insect activity.”

But the impacts of climate change must be addressed. “Society should not assume that the legal protection of open spaces is sufficient without the action to limit the advance of anthropogenic climate change,” the study's authors wrote.

Forister also highlighted butterflies’ critical role as pollinators, saying, “We can't rely only on the honey bee to pollinate our crops. We need a diversity of natural pollinators moving forward.”

The study found that the decline in butterflies across the West is consistent with declines estimated for other groups of insects around the world. Forister says this is frightening because insects are “the glue of ecosystems.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Stephanie Serrano (she/her/ella) is an award-winning multimedia bilingual journalist based in Reno, Nevada. Her reporting is powered by character-driven stories and is rooted in sound-rich audio. Her storytelling works to share the experiences of unserved communities in regards to education, race, affordable housing and sports.
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