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Are Butterflies Wildlife? Depends Where You Live in the U.S.

Are Butterflies Wildlife? Depends Where You Live in the U.S.

butterfly flapping its wings

A legal quirk leaves officials in at least a dozen states with little or no authority to protect insects. That’s a growing problem for humans.

March 4, 2023

It’s tough being an insect. They get swatted, stomped and sprayed without a thought. Their mere presence can provoke irrational panic. Even everyday language disparages them: “Stop bugging me,” we say.

To make matters worse for insects, they have also been sidelined legally in some states, with unintended but serious repercussions. The reason? According to many state statutes, insects are not considered wildlife.

A close-up shot of a white butterfly with green blotches on its wigs. It sits on a cluster of yellow flowers.

The large marble butterfly is now locally extinct in some places. Rick and Nora Bowers/Alamy

Bees, butterflies and beetles pollinate plants, enrich soils and provide a critical protein source for species up the food chain. The United States Forest Service puts it simply: “Without pollinators, the human race and all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive.”

Ecologically they are “the little things that run the world,” in the words of the biologist E.O. Wilson

But those little things are increasingly threatened. Scientists are reporting alarming declines in many species. Some insects appear especially vulnerable to climate change’s supercharged droughts and heat, which hit them hard in addition to chronic pressures like disappearing habitat, widespread pesticides and light pollution.

At the same time, conservation officials in at least 12 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming — have their hands tied, legally speaking, when it comes to protecting insects. The creatures are simply left out of state conservation statues, or their situation is ambiguous.

State agencies are really at the forefront of conservation for wildlife,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit group that advocates for insect conservation. “But in these states where they can’t work on insects, or in some cases any invertebrates, they don’t. So, you see things just languish.”

The problem may stem in part from the intention of state agencies when they were created roughly a century ago: To protect wild species from getting hunted or fished to extinction. And, to be clear: Bugs are not totally unregulated. Agricultural departments control for invasive species or those that damage crops, but that typically entails killing them. Some do pollinator education, too.

Sometimes, aquatic insects come under the purview of state wildlife agencies. Other times, help may come once insects are struggling enough to be on the road to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. But often, there’s nobody in charge of conservation.

A close-up shot of a bee with its head plunged into a yellow flower.

The Western bumblebee is threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Stephanie Starr/Alamy

In Arizona, for example, state statute defines wildlife as “all wild mammals, wild birds and the nests or eggs thereof, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans and fish, including their eggs or spawn.” Insects are absent. So Jeff Sorensen, the manager of the invertebrate wildlife program at the state Game and Fish Department, which would otherwise include insects, focuses on the categories that are designated: crustaceans and mollusks.

“It’s unfortunate that an entire group of animals, insects, are not being given the same level of attention and management abilities,” he said.

States that do have authority over insect conservation can take measures like protecting certain habitats and creating action plans to restore threatened insects. Washington state, for example, requires cities and counties to avoid a net loss to vulnerable insects from new developments.

But even in states that are empowered to protect insects, they tend to be a low priority compared with mammals, birds, fish and even less charismatic vertebrates like reptiles and amphibians. Moreover, officials sometimes face restrictions on their ability to include insects on state endangered species lists. In September, for instance, it took a California Supreme Court ruling to confirm that they could be listed. The catch: Given the constraints of state statutes, they have to be lumped in with fish. (The chief justice took care to point out that the ruling didn’t mean bumblebees are now actually fish under the law.)

In large part, state agencies remain focused on species that are hunted and fished, according to state workers and scientists. “I have talked to agency leadership in some states who don’t even know that an insect is an animal,” said Ross Winton, an invertebrate biologist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department who leads a new working group on invertebrates and pollinator conservation through the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

A man with a mustache and goatee kneels on the ground near a bush. He wears a beige shirt and dark pants.

Ross Winton in search of a specimen at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin. Texas is one of the states that has authority to protect insects. Montinique Monroe for the New York Times

The lack of attention becomes even more stark when you consider the magnitude of the conservation challenge. Insects represent a huge share of animal species — by some estimates, 80 percent. They’re particularly hard to monitor, given their small size and vast diversity.

Some states do appear to be waking up to the plight of insects.

A bill introduced last month in Nevada seeks to expand the definition of wildlife to include non-pest insects in need of conservation. In Colorado, a new state law has mandated a study on protecting native pollinators. But across the states without insect authority, officials are often reluctant to broach adding it, Mr. Winton said.

Money is a major obstacle. Without increased funding, adding insects to an already overloaded conservation caseload can feel impossible, state employees say.

A close-up shot of a beetle with brown legs, a beige body section and bulgy eyes. Its two antennas are slightly curved.

The coral pink sand dunes tiger beetle is found only in one state park in southern Utah. Leon Werdinger/Alamy

A federal bill that would have provided an additional $1.4 billion annually to state and tribal wildlife agencies could have acted as a catalyst for more insect conservation, but it died last year in the Senate.

Seven of the states without insect conservation authority are in the West, which has felt the effects of climate change intensely. Insects are especially vulnerable to these changes, scientists say, in part because they can easily dry out. Research suggests that steady butterfly declines in the region are linked to worsening heat and drought, among other factors.

butterfly flapping its wings

The large marble butterfly, a species found in many Western states, may be a case in point. While it thrived through the 1980s, even adapting to new host plants, its populations in many monitored sites have since crashed. The once-abundant species is now locally extinct in some places. Scientists can’t say why for certain, but they suspect pesticide use, habitat loss to development and agriculture, and climate change.

“These climate swings have become so intense and wide ranging, like the megadrought, you can’t hide,” said Matt Forister, an insect ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

As the troubles of insects become more apparent, some states are coming up with workaround solutions. In Utah, for example, the top insect authority is arguably Amanda Barth, an ecologist at Utah State University who leads the state’s rare insect conservation program under a 2020 memorandum of understanding with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

“But I’m not an authority,” she clarified. “I can speak for the state in a lot of ways, but I can’t make rules.”

A woman with shoulder-length dark blond hair sitting at a desk. She wears a black, long-sleeved shirt with a gold bee on the front. On the desk, a microscope with an orange and black butterfly under the objective lens.

Amanda Barth at her home in Salt Lake City. Niki Chan Wylie for The New York Times

Ms. Barth’s position is politically delicate enough that her email signature states explicitly that she’s an employee of the university. When states move to protect insects, they often face backlash from industries like farming and development that stand to lose money.

She says she has to keep it “transparent that the Division of Wildlife Resources is not acting outside of its authority by dedicating resources or personnel to this program.”

Still, Ms. Barth is determined to replace her ecological despair with action, and she’s proud of the various efforts she has underway. There’s the citizen-science project that has recorded thousands of observations of native insects. There’s work on federal lands, where agencies like the Bureau of Land Management have authority over insects. There’s the conservation agreement to protect a rare and endemic beetle, the coral pink sand dunes tiger beetle, from declining so much that it needs protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“I like to call them creative solutions,” Ms. Barth said.

But such partnerships also reflect limitations. Ms. Barth leads a monarch butterfly and native pollinator working group with other Western states through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a nonprofit group. One of the benefits: They can make suggestions about conservation of western monarchs, which have declined about 90 percent since the 1980s, that they would not have the authority to offer within their own states.

“It’s a group effort, it provides us cover because most of the states in the working group don’t have management authority over insects,” Ms. Barth said. “We’re trying to pool our resources and kind of split the bill.”

Among the working group’s projects: Creating blueprint language that states can choose to adopt to bring insects into the fold.

“They matter,” she said. “It’s a culture shift.”

Monarch butterflies are classified as endangered by the I.U.C.N. Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

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