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Montauk Alone Cannot Save the Monarchs

Wed, 09/27/2023 - 18:25


Supporters of a controversial plan to clear brush on town-owned land along Old Montauk Highway in Montauk have cited the plight of the monarch butterfly as among the plan's justifications. It is undeniable that monarchs are in steep decline, but to suggest that the work in the Benson Reservation, also known as a reserve, would make a difference is disingenuous. The more obvious conclusion is that the project would improve the views — and values — of nearby properties, "water view" being a magic phrase among real estate listings.

The town came to own the roughly 40 oceanfront acres in 1999 as part of a long and tangled deal with the Sunbeach development corporation. Since then, the property has mostly served as a way for residents and visitors willing to traverse its trails to get to the beach. It contains stable primary and secondary duneland and is covered with familiar scrub vegetation that is a mix of native and non-native plants. 

Monarch butterflies have been a familiar sight along the Montauk ocean beach, especially during their late-summer and early-fall migration to their wintering grounds in central Mexico. Among the plants that monarchs need to survive the trek are the goldenrod that bloom at the same time they are on the move. The monarchs are not the only insects that feast on the seasonal flowers: About 115 butterfly and moth species in the Mid-Atlantic and at least 11 native bee species feed on the plants. But goldenrod is hardly in trouble, in fact, this season especially Long Island beaches and roadsides were ablaze with it. 

The eastern monarch butterfly is a remarkable work of nature's genius, but human activity has taken a sharp toll. Each year, their successive generations travel as far as 2,800 miles to the forests in Mexico. But fewer are returning. Twenty-five years ago, wintering monarchs covered more than 45 acres of woodland, sheltering in the tall fir trees from wind, rain, and low temperatures. By 2021, the number of monarchs could cover only seven acres. Over the winter of 2022-23, that figure fell to 5.5 acres — a 23-percent drop. The population in the Western United States is in crisis as well.

This catastrophic population collapse is attributed to a reduction of breeding habitat in the north due to herbicide application and land use changes, as well as forest degradation in wintering sites in Mexico. Extreme weather conditions in all these ecosystems driven by climate change is furthering their decline. The World Wildlife Fund, which closely monitors the monarchs, recommends that individuals plant milkweed — the only source of food for baby monarch caterpillars. Yet there appears to be plenty of milkweed here on the East End. Clearly the monarch's fall has to do with larger things. Scientists say the species is at immediate risk of extinction, but the federal Fish and Wildlife Service has so far failed to include monarchs on the endangered list.

All of this makes the more than $800,000 anticipated initial cost of clearing a portion of the Benson Reservation seem misplaced, if not appallingly wasteful. If this is about the butterflies, as the project's fans say, the money would be far better directed to breeding-habitat restoration more generally — and lobbying government regulators to do much more to limit the use of the most harmful pesticides nationwide.

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