It's good to be orange

Chris Jones is a research engineer (IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering) at the University of Iowa. This post first appeared at the author’s blog. -promoted by Laura Belin

Many have written how earth’s species are undergoing a mass extinction right now, the sixth such event in the planet’s history. These writers include Elizabeth Kolbert and the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson. Extinctions are occurring now at a faster pace than any time since 65 million years ago, when earth’s collision with a 7-mile wide asteroid caused the 5th great extinction, wiping out 70 percent of all species.

One species that did survive the fifth extinction was the Pallid Sturgeon. This fish entered earth’s evolutionary record about 70 million years ago. “Pallid” means absence of color, and true enough, the pallid sturgeon is nearly white. It is one of the largest (up to 85 pounds), longest-lived (as long as 100 years) and ugliest (like a bizarre cross between a shark and an armadillo) fish species in North America. The fish is endangered because we wrecked the Missouri River.


Biologists release a pallid sturgeon. Image credit: By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the USFWS digital library collection [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3478729.

In the aftermath of the 2019 Missouri River flood, it’s been suggested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) increased the severity of flooding by trying to enhance conditions for the Pallid Sturgeon through partial restoration of natural hydrology. This has led some to say that the Corps is favoring endangered species over human beings. Now, I must say I do not know whether Corps efforts aggravated flooding or not. For what I am writing here, it doesn’t matter.

What interests me is the contrast this situation presents with our efforts to save an insect, the Monarch butterfly. The Monarch is a much newer animal than is the Pallid Sturgeon and in fact may have become a unique species about the same time we did, emerging sometime between 250,000 and 1.75 million years ago.

The Monarch is a marvel of evolutionary biology because it seems to have one adaptable gene that enabled it to gradually increase its musculature and lengthen its migrations as the climate warmed following the last ice age. There also seems to be a single gene that is responsible for its striking orange and black coloration.

Who doesn’t love the Monarch? We love it so much, we gave it the name of royalty. I grew up in Iowa and had a fascination with Lepidoptera. I collected many Monarch caterpillars, reared them in Mason jars to maturity, and then released the adults. I later did this with my own children. Many others have done the same.

Our reasons for wanting the Monarch to recover may vary, but I think two are its appeal to our eye, and then a fascination with the incredible feat of so-delicate-a-species surviving a 3000-mile migration, year after year, for thousands of years. It really is a mind-boggler. I also think we’re motivated by the idea that an Iowa without Monarchs would be a powerful reminder that our exploitation of the landscape has had consequences.

Some people did foresee that our war on weeds would be bad for the Monarch, but we didn’t act in a concerted and coordinated effort to save them until the population became alarmingly low in late 2012. Since then, I think it can be said that we’ve acted swiftly and forcefully. It seems to me that nothing has united farmers, landowners and environmentalists in common cause more than the effort to save the Monarch butterfly.


Male monarch butterfly. Image credit: PBS

There are so many existing programs and funds to help people help the Monarch that I will not even try to list them here. This may be a controversial statement for some, but….as far as the theme of putting endangered species ahead of humans, I think it’s undeniable that we have put more effort into saving this imperiled insect than we have in protecting our largest city’s water supply. Maybe that’s the way it should be. At any rate, there’s a diligent effort underway to keep the Monarch off the official endangered species list.

Ah yes, the endangered species list (and act). Perhaps at once the most hated and most effective piece of legislation in America. The law was passed in the early 1970s, an era of law-making that included the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The law was almost immediately controversial because the endangered snail darter fish of Tennessee effectively halted the construction of a dam (the dam was eventually built and the species survived). In hearing a case about the dam-fish controversy, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the loss of a species was incalculable. Of the 1,600 species that have been listed as endangered, only ten went extinct and eight of those likely before they were actually listed. At least 110 of the 1600 have significantly recovered. These include our national symbol the American bald eagle and also the gray wolf, whooping crane, and American crocodile.

In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was petitioned to protect the Monarch under the Endangered Species Act. A decision will be made in June of this year on whether or not to protect it under this legislation (1). It’s not hard to imagine an officially-endangered Monarch butterfly generating the same sort of controversy in farm country created by the Lesser Prairie Chicken, another imperiled species. Almost 80 percent of all endangered species significantly rely on private property. Because federal law prohibits harmful interactions, including an activity that adversely affects a threatened or endangered species’ habitat, private property use can be regulated unless a landowner receives federal approval (2).

Of course the Pallid Sturgeon is already on the endangered list, which apparently has only brought it scorn. If only it weren’t so damn ugly, I guess. It somehow managed to survive a catastrophic meteor collision and the subsequent 65 million years, but has only barely survived our effort to beat the Missouri River into submission for navigation and floodplain agriculture.

The God of Abraham reportedly said to Job:

But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.

Powerful words, but I have to disagree with the finale. In OUR hand is the life of every creature. As the writer Stewart Brand and probably many others have said: WE ARE AS GODS.

The problem is, we aren’t very good at it.


Iowa monarch on goldenrod. Image credit: Iowa State University.

1. https://wildlife.org/the-return-of-monarch-butterflies-protection-and-restoration-of-milkweed-habitat
2. https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/landowners.pdf.

  • The monarch is fortunate in certain respects

    It will be possible (though certainly not just a cakewalk) to persuade (and of course also bribe) farmers into planting milkweed. That is especially true because the milkweed can be planted on small non-rowcropped unprofitable corners of farmland, including bioreactor sites and hoglot perimeters.

    It also helps that farmers are being warned that if the monarch were ever officially listed per the ESA, it could be a disaster. I’ve seen a few of those warnings.

    By contrast, it will be incredibly difficult to even attempt to get the political support that is needed to do some of the restoration and management work needed by the greatly-abused Missouri River. Some floodplain farmers are hardcore about their right to rowcrop next to the water.

    I saw one landowner talking on TV about how the Corps is trying to force him to sell his flooded farmland (with Corps moustache-twirling implied) and how they won’t succeed because he’ll never ever sell no matter what. Like the Blues Brothers, some floodplain farmers seem to believe they are on a mission from God, with taxpayers apparently playing the role of divinely-appointed intermediaries who need to keep ponying up the cash for crop insurance subsidies, flood cleanup, etc. (Taxpayers already paid for the big upstream reservoirs that made rowcropping next to the Missouri in Iowa much more possible.)

    And the point about the monarch being delicately beautiful is certainly valid, though I think the pallid sturgeon is magnificent-looking. To me it looks like what unicorns would look like if unicorns lived in big rivers.

    But even more than appearance, I think maybe the sturgeon’s biggest problem is that it has no farmland leverage. If it walked around on land and could potentially legally affect pesticide use on cornfields, it would have at least a little political clout.

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