The monarch butterfly has a new friend in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which has announced a $20 million, 5-year habitat restoration plan for the threatened iconic insects.

Within that period, the agency says $4 million a year will be directed to efforts to keep the monarchs – indisputably North America's most familiar butterfly – off the endangered species list.

Populations of the butterflies, famous for their annual migration from the United States and southern Canada to winter homes in Mexico, hit a historic low in the winter of 2013 to 2014, according to conservationists.

The Minnesota-based group Monarch Joint Venture estimates that the population was around 33 million, down from 1 billion butterflies in 1996 to 1997.

The chief factor in their decline has been the loss of their natural prairie habitat and the milkweed plants the butterflies need for laying their eggs, as those eggs hatch into caterpillars that feed exclusively on milkweed.

These habitats have increasingly been lost to agriculture, livestock farming, deforestation and development.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, working with the Minnesota groups and the National Wildlife Federations, will work to restore and enhance more than 200,000 acres of monarch habitat on public and private lands this year.

"We can save the monarch butterfly in North America, but only if we act quickly and together," said USFWS Director Dan Ashe.

The announced funding will help conserve migration and breeding habitats in priority areas, including spring breeding grounds in Oklahoma and Texas, summer breeding habitats in Minnesota and other Midwest states, and regions west of the Rockies vital for the western population of monarchs.

"Together we can create oases for monarchs in communities across the country," Ashe said.

In addition, the agency is supporting more than 750 schoolyard habitats where students can learn about the insects and participate in conservation efforts.

Citizen scientists can get involved through a website, Journey North, where they can help gather data by reporting first sightings of monarchs in their area and new growth of milkweed.

The species of butterfly is so iconic that monarchs were taken to the International Space Station and bred in orbit.

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