We learned recently that North American monarch butterflies are the latest candidates to be classified as an endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission has been petitioned by several groups to put the pretty, stout-winged, orange-and-black insects on the list of threatened fauna.

National Geographic magazine reports that the monarch population has been reduced 90 percent since the mid-1990s – from a billion or so of them then, to an estimated 35 million last year.

Weather has a lot to do with survival of the species. In 2002, for instance, a severe cold snap hit Mexico and killed an estimated 500 million monarchs. Nothing we can do about that – the little critters go where they will when they will. (Well, unless we want to construct a 3,000-mile wire-mesh funnel from Angle Inlet to Brownsville, then hire butterfly herders to move them along. But that’ll never happen. Heck, we can’t even agree on whether to allow another north-south oil pipeline to transverse the Midwest.)

Now the federal government is stepping in, pledging more than $3 million to save the monarch. Nearly two-thirds of that will be devoted to restoring more than 200,000 acres of butterfly-friendly habitat in California, which has a sizeable monarch population, and in several Midwestern states from Texas to Michigan along the route the monarchs follow in their migrations every fall and spring.

The rest of the money will seed a federal conservation fund to provide grants to farmers and other landowners who pledge to conserve private habitat. (Oh boy! Free money! Where do we sign up?)

So wait a minute. Are these tax dollars well spent? It’s difficult to take one side or the other.

On the one hand, too many government initiatives have wound up wasting the bucks of U.S. taxpayers. On the other hand, public funds well spent have saved the salmon in the U.S. Northwest, providing watery “stepladders” around dams so the fish can more easily get to their spawning grounds in the Columbia River headwaters. That means more food on the table for those who love salmon.

Moreover, isn’t it an accepted law of nature that the fittest survive? Who are we to meddle with Mother Nature, just because our bleeding hearts want to shield from extinction some winged visual aspect of life in the forest that pleases us?

Could we not simply encourage people in the monarchs’ migratory corridor between Mexico and Canada as well as the folks in California to plant more milkweed, which the picky monarch has chosen over the years as its exclusive incubation center? Where is Johnny Milkyweed when we need him?

Monarchs are pollinators – like bees – and serve as barometers for more widespread environmental dilemmas. So perhaps this will be $3.2 million well spent. After all, that amount equates to only about .000000008 of a percent of a nearly $4 trillion annual Washington spending plan. (Unfortunately, it’s the “little things” that add up.)

In the end, why wouldn’t we help a creature that enhances the beauty of our surroundings?

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