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NRDC Sues EPA Over Demise of Monarch Butterfly Population

An environmental group sued the U.S. government on Friday, accusing regulators of dragging their feet on efforts to save the declining monarch butterfly population. The Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency in U.S. District Court in New York. The suit claimed the agency has failed to heed warnings about the dangers to monarchs posed by glyphosate, the key ingredient in a widely used herbicide. Glyphosate is used in Monsanto Co.'s Roundup and other herbicides. The NRDC said EPA has failed to respond to a petition filed more than a year ago to limit the use of glyphosate. "The longer EPA delays, the greater the risk we could lose the monarch migration," Sylvia Fallon, an NRDC senior scientist and director of its Wildlife Conservation Project, said in a statement.

Federal law requires EPA to ensure that pesticides it approves will not cause "unreasonable adverse effects on the environment, including wildlife," the lawsuit states. "However, the agency has never considered glyphosate's impacts on monarchs."

The EPA said in a statement issued to NBC News that the science surrounding what's killing off the butterflies is still evolving and there could be multiple factors at play, including loss of habitat, weather and pesticides. "EPA is taking a number of measures to protect the monarch butterfly and other pollinators. With regard to pesticide exposure, EPA is looking holistically at all herbicides, not only glyphosate, to determine the effects on monarchs and resources critical to butterfly populations," the agency said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month pledged $3.2 million to help save the monarch butterfly. The orange-and-black spotted monarchs are renowned for migrating thousands of miles over many generations from Mexico, across the United States to Canada, and then back again. They have seen their numbers fall precipitously in recent years, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The lawsuit states that the monarch population was tallied at 1 billion in 1997 and this winter was down to 56.5 million butterflies, the second-lowest number ever measured.

Effort to save monarch butterfly population gets a boost 2:11
Fighting to Save the US Monarch Population 1:01

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— Reuters and NBC News staff