Are butterflies wild animals? Depends on where you live in the US

Butterfly flapping its wings

A legal quirk leaves officials in at least a dozen states little or no authority to protect insects. This is a growing problem for people.

It’s tough being an insect. They are slapped, kicked and spattered without even thinking. Their mere presence can create irrational panic. Even everyday language denigrates them: “Stop bugging me,” we say.

To make matters worse for insects, they’ve also been marginalized by law in some states, with unintended but serious repercussions. The reason? Under many state laws, insects are not considered wild animals.

A closeup of a white butterfly with green spots on its twigs.  It sits on a cluster of yellow flowers.

The marbled butterfly is now locally extinct in some places.

Rick and Nora Bowers/Alamy

Bees, butterflies, and beetles pollinate plants, enrich soil, and are an important source of protein for species in the food chain. As the United States Forest Service puts it simply, “Without pollinators, humankind and all of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive.”

Ecologically, they are “the little things that make the world go round,” as biologist EO Wilson puts it.

But these little things are increasingly threatened. Scientists are reporting alarming declines in many species. Some insects appear to be particularly vulnerable to the droughts and heat of climate change, which are hitting them hard in addition to chronic stresses such as habitat loss, 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 — legally have their hands tied when it comes to insect conservation. The creatures are simply omitted from state conservation statues, or their situation is ambiguous.

“Government agencies are really at the forefront of protecting wildlife,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to insect conservation. “But in those states where they can’t work on insects or, in some cases, invertebrates, they don’t do that. So you see things are just languishing.”

The problem may stem in part from the intention of government agencies when they were created about a century ago: to protect wild species from being hunted or fished to extinction. And to be clear: bugs are not completely unregulated. Agriculture departments check for invasive species or those that damage crops, but that usually means killing them. Some also practice pollinator education.

Sometimes aquatic insects fall under the jurisdiction of state wildlife agencies. In other cases, help may come when insects are struggling enough to be on their way to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. But often no one is responsible for nature conservation.

A closeup of a bee inspecting yellow flowers.

The western bumblebee is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

Rich Hatfield/Xerces Society

For example, in Arizona, state law defines wildlife as “all wild mammals, wild birds and their nests or eggs, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, including their eggs or fry.” Insects are absent. So Jeff Sorensen, manager of the wildlife invertebrates program at the state Department of Wildlife and Fishes, which would otherwise include insects, focuses on the categories being labeled: crustaceans and molluscs.

“It’s unfortunate that an entire group of animals, insects, isn’t given the same level of attention and management skills,” he said.

States that have responsibility for insect conservation can take actions such as protecting specific habitats and creating action plans to restore endangered species. Washington state, for example, requires cities and counties to avoid a net loss to endangered insects from new developments.

But even in states that have the power to protect insects, they tend to be a low priority compared to mammals, birds, fish, and even less charismatic vertebrates like reptiles and amphibians. Additionally, officials sometimes face restrictions on their ability to include insects on state endangered species lists. In September, for example, it took a ruling from the California Supreme Court to confirm that they could be included on the list. The catch: Due to government regulations, they have to be lumped together with fish. (The Chief Justice pointed out that the ruling does not mean that bumblebees are now actually fish by law.)

For the most part, state officials continue to focus on species that are hunted and fished, according to state officials and scientists. “I’ve spoken to agency leaders in a few 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 is leading a new working group on invertebrate and pollinator conservation Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

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

Ross Winton looking for a specimen at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin. Texas is one of the states that has the power to protect insects.

Montinique Monroe for the New York Times

The lack of attention becomes even more glaring when one considers the scale of the conservation challenge. Insects make up a large proportion of animal species – an estimated 80 percent. Because of their small size and enormous diversity, they are particularly difficult to monitor.

Some states seem to be waking up to the insects’ plight.

A bill introduced in Nevada last month aims to broaden the definition of wild animals to include non-pest insects that need protection. In Colorado, a new state law has commissioned a study to protect native pollinators. But in states without an insect agency, officials are often reluctant to raise it, Mr Winton said.

Money is a big obstacle. Without increased funding, it may feel impossible to add insects to an already overloaded conservation case count, state officials say.

Close up of a beetle with brown legs, beige body part and protruding eyes.  Its two antennae are slightly curved.

The coral pink sand dune tiger beetle is found only in one state park in southern Utah.

Leon Werdinger/Alamy

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

Seven of the states without an insect protection agency are in the west, which is feeling the effects of climate change severely. Insects are particularly susceptible to these changes, scientists say, partly because they can easily become dehydrated. Research suggests that the steady decline in butterflies in the region is related to increasing heat and drought, among other factors.

The marbled butterfly, a species found in many western states, might be a case in point. While it thrived in the 1980s and even adapted to new host plants, its populations have since collapsed at many monitored sites. The once common species is now locally extinct in some places. Scientists can’t say for sure why, but they suspect pesticide use, habitat loss from development and agriculture, and climate change.

“These climate swings have become so intense and widespread, like the mega-drought, that you can’t hide them,” said Matt Forister, an insect ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

As insect problems become more apparent, some states are developing 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 many ways, but I can’t make rules.”

A woman with shoulder-length dark blond hair sits 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 sensitive enough that her email signature explicitly states that she is a university employee. When states move to protect insects, they often face backlash from industries like agriculture and development, which could lose money.

She says she must “be transparent that the Department of Wildlife Resources is not acting outside of its authority by providing resources or staff to this program.”

Still, Ms. Barth is determined to replace her ecological desperation with action, and she’s proud of the diverse efforts she’s made. There’s the Citizen Science project, which has recorded thousands of observations of native insects. There is work on states where agencies like the Bureau of Land Management have authority over insects. The conservation agreement exists to protect a rare and endemic beetle, the coral pink sand dune tiger beetle, from a decline so severe that it must be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

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

But such partnerships also reflect limitations. Ms. Barth leads a working group on monarch butterflies and native pollinators with other western states through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a non-profit group. One of the perks: They can make suggestions on the preservation of western monarchs, down about 90 percent since the 1980s, that they couldn’t offer in their own states.

“It’s a group effort, it gives 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 split the bill.”

Among the workgroup’s projects: Creating a blueprint language that states can adopt to bring insects into the flock.

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

Monarch butterflies are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN

Katie Orlinsky for the New York Times

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