Efforts to protect butterflies, desert fish would get millions under Extinction Prevention Act

By Ryan Johnson

Arizona is home to a number of species that are threatened by climate change and human activity. Under legislation proposed by Rep. Raul Grijalva, Arizona fish and butterflies may get additional federal funds for conservation efforts.

The Tucson Democrat, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, last month introduced the Extinction Prevention Act of 2019 to fund conservation efforts for butterflies in North America, fish that live in the desert Southwest, Pacific Island plants and freshwater mussels in the U.S.

The bill would authorize $5 million annually for each of the listed groups from 2020 until 2025. These funds would be distributed nationally or regionally to aid various preservation projects, including habitat restoration and research into at-risk populations.

The legislation, first introduced on May 22, comes two months after the Trump administration released its 2020 budget, which many environmental advocates criticized for cutting environmental programs, such as a 31% reduction in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s unthinkable for Congress to hear of a million species being at risk of extinction without acting,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Many of the most serious risks come from habitat destruction, climate change and other human impacts on the natural world. We can’t live without the oxygen and food produced by the other living things on this planet, so let’s do ourselves a favor and protect them before it’s too late.”

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is based in Tucson, said the organization worked closely with Grijalva on the initial concept for the bill.

Greenwald said the proposed bill highlights a shift in the government’s attention, focusing on species previously neglected by federal agencies and funding.

“The committee chose to showcase this bill … right at the same time that the U.N. issued a report saying that as many as a million species are at risk of extinction,” he said. “I think this just reflects a growing awareness of the problem and the fact that we have a great chairman of the National Resources committee right now.”

A report published by the Center for Biological Diversity in December 2016 found that a disproportionate amount of federal expenditures in 2014 were allocated to a small collection of protected species, while thousands of others were forced to split the remaining funds. The report stated that one in four species received less than $10,000 that year. The report identified freshwater mussels, Pacific Island plants, butterflies and desert fish as needing increased federal attention.

Butterfly conservation

Ron Rutowski, professor emeritus at Arizona State’s School of Life Sciences and president of the Central Arizona Butterfly Association, said he hopes, if the bill is passed, that the allocated funds for butterfly conservation go toward further research into what most threatens at-risk butterfly subspecies, including the monarch.

“Before you can really decide exactly what should be done to improve the lives of the monarchs, you need to understand those causes,” he said. “The only way we’re going to get at that is through scientific research.”

Although no Arizona butterflies are on the endangered species list, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation lists five subspecies found in Arizona as imperiled or vulnerable. The monarch is not on that list, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide in December 2020 whether the butterfly should be listed as endangered.

The biggest threat to butterfly populations is habitat destruction, Rutowski said.

Gail Morris, coordinator of the Southwest Monarch Study, a nonprofit group that researches and documents monarch migrations and breeding, said habitat destruction occurs in a number of ways in Arizona.