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Mexico Monarch Butterflies

FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2015 file photo, Monarch butterflies perch on a twig at the Piedra Herrada sanctuary, near Valle del Bravo, Mexico. The number of Monarch butterflies that reached wintering grounds in Mexico has rebounded 69 percent from last year�s lowest-on-record levels, but their numbers remain very low, according to a formal census by Mexican environmental authorities and scientists released Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

WASHINGTON • An environmental group that opposes genetically modified crops is issuing a 77-page report on the decline of the monarch butterfly that lays much of the blame on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops and Roundup herbicide.

The Center for Food Safety will release the report Thursday and brief members of Congress on it.

The report acknowledges that diminished wintering grounds for the migrating butterfly — whose annual journey takes it through Missouri and Illinois — plays a role in diminished monarch populations.

But the report also contains one of the most direct challenges to date of Monsanto’s Roundup products and their impact on the butterfly. Among other things, the environmental organization calls for the phasing out of herbicide-resistant plants over 10 years, and for a halt in a new generation of genetically engineered crops it says are being planned by Monsanto and other companies.

That phaseout has virtually no chance of getting through a Republican-controlled Congress, which is already in major fights with the administration of President Barack Obama on a variety of regulatory fronts.

But on the heels of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to consider endangered species status for the butterfly, the report is another salvo in an escalating regulatory and public relations battle over the iconic monarch butterfly.

Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said the Creve Coeur-based company would not respond to the report without seeing it in full, but she said Monsanto was “working, alongside many stakeholders including those in the agriculture sector, federal agencies, conservation groups, and public sector researchers, to help the monarchs.”

The Center for Food Safety was among several environmental groups that in December successfully petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to open a study on whether the butterfly should be on the endangered species list, in part because of threats from genetically modified crops and herbicides. Monsanto is a leader in their production.

Environmental and food safety groups said in their endangered species petition that the butterfly’s population had fallen from a high of 1 billion in the mid-1990s to 35 million in 2013.

The World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican government last week released a survey of the monarch’s wintering grounds in a western Mexican forest. The study showed that while the area occupied this winter by the hibernating monarchs is up 69 percent over 2013 (to 2.73 acres, just slightly larger than a typical square city block), it is still the second-smallest wintering ground of the last two decades.

The monarch is dependent upon milkweed for food and reproduction during its annual 1,200- to 2,800-mile migration from Mexico to the Midwest and Canada.

The Center for Food Safety’s report says that farming per se is not the problem. Rather, the report asserts, it’s Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops that have led to a decline of 99 percent of milkweed in corn and soybean fields over the last 20 years.

“Monarch butterflies have co-existed with agriculture ever since the prairies and forests of the Midwest were converted to cropland in the late 1800s, thriving despite dramatic changes in farming practices over the 20th Century,” the report says. “Monarchs have been able to thrive in a landscape dominated by agriculture because just one of the 130 or so North American milkweed species .... is remarkably well adapted for life on disturbed ground, such as plowed fields, cleared woodlands, and roadsides. This one species has thus been able to largely replace the other kinds of milkweeds that hosted monarchs before prairies were plowed under and forests cut down.”

But, the report says, “a dramatic change in farming practices — the widespread cultivation of genetically engineered, glysophate-resistant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans — has triggered a precipitous decline of common milkweed, and thus of monarchs. Glysophate, sold by Monsanto under the name of Roundup, is one of the very few herbicides that is effective on milkweed.”

The herbicide prevents regeneration of milkweed from year-to-year by killing the plant at the root, the report says.

In January, after the Fish and Wildlife Service said it was going forward to determine whether endangered status was warranted, Monsanto issued a statement saying that the company was “in dialogue with experts from universities, nonprofits and government agencies in regards to the restoration of monarch habitat in (federal) Crop Reserve Program land, on-farm buffer strips, roadsides, utility rights of way and government-owned land.”

The issue “is complicated, since monarchs need milkweed to survive but farmers consider the plant a weed which competes with their crops for water, soil and nutrients,” the January Monsanto statement said.

In its report, the Center for Food Safety offers a host of recommendations for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress, including:

• No new approval of herbicide-resistant crops until the impact on milkweed, monarchs and pollinators is determined.

• An expedited endangered species determination by the FWS, which would give the government greater powers to protect the butterfly.

• Incentives for farmers to create more “biodiverse” edges around farm fields, which would ostensibly boost milkweed-friendly zones.

• Elimination of federal incentives for the production of ethanol, which environmentalists say is driving farmers to convert more land to Roundup Ready corn and soybeans.

But these proposals would face great opposition from a Republican Congress that already thinks the Obama administration over-regulates on the environment.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Wednesday that “nobody wants the monarch butterfly or the honey bee or anything else to go away.” But he said that Obama already “comes up with regulations that are too drastic, without giving thought to those regulations” and their impact on business.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she was concerned about the monarch population, but was waiting for more scientific results to determine whether further regulations to protect it are necessary.

Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.