Saving the Monarch

Female Monarch Butterfly (Kenneth Dwain Harrelson)

The annual migration of the monarch butterfly is a natural wonder on a continental scale. The three thousand mile annual journey from Mexico to Canada and back, accomplished across multiple generations, engenders awe and amazement at the wonder of this beautiful, delicate yet determined creature.

Yet intense deforestation in Mexico and loss of migratory habitat threatens the population of monarch butterflies with devastating collapse.

As University of Kansas professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Chip Taylor explains, “to lose something like this migration is to diminish all of us. It’s so truly spectacular, one of the awe-inspiring phenomena that nature presents to us. There is no way to describe the sight of 25 million monarchs per acre — or the sensation of standing in a snowstorm of orange as the butterflies cascade off the fir trees.”

Butterfly on the Brink, on the University of Kansas website, describes the plight of the monarch, and the efforts being made to preserve the species. Since 1992, MonarchWatch, a project of the Kansas Biological Survey at the University of Kansas, has supported research, conservation and education to aid the monarch butterfly, tracking the population at the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, a 217-square-mile area in the mountains of central Mexico that is the winter home for millions of migrating butterflies from across the continent.

But as professor Taylor indicates, the three lowest populations recorded at the wintering sites have occurred since the year 2000. “In spite of its protected status, the isolated reserve is suffering from illegal logging driven by soaring prices for lumber in Mexico. This logging, once sporadic, has increased in recent years and now is threatening the very survival of the butterflies. Over the past two winters, millions of monarchs have died from exposure to wind and cold temperatures in clear-cut areas. Monarch Watch estimates half of the reserve needs reforestation.

“‘It’s a remote area, and it’s difficult to police,’ Taylor said. ‘There are elements that are quite forceful in their logging. They carry guns. They overpower the local residents. They sneak in there at night, sometimes with 100 trucks, and clear out 2 or 3 hectares. And we’ve got the local residents contributing to this as well. Now that they’ve taken out most of the areas where the butterflies don’t occur, they’re going to be starting work on the areas where they do occur. This prospect is very ominous and is a serious threat to the overwintering population.”

Monarch Butterfly (Monarchwatch)

There are also substantial threats to the species’ migratory habitats:

“Widespread adoption of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans has resulted in the loss of more than 80 million acres of monarch habitat in recent years. The planting of these crops genetically modified to resist the non-selective systemic herbicide glyphosate (Roundup®) allows growers to spray fields with this herbicide instead of tilling to control weeds. Milkweeds survive tilling but not the repeated use of glyphosate. This habitat loss is significant since these croplands represent more than 30% of the summer breeding area for monarchs.”
But MonarchWatch offers ways for volunteers to help parry this adverse development through its Monarch Waystation Program:

“Monarch Waystations are places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Without milkweeds throughout their spring and summer breeding areas in North America, monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall. Similarly, without nectar from flowers these fall migratory monarch butterflies would be unable to make their long journey to overwintering grounds in Mexico. The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all monarch and butterfly populations around the world.”

One of the easy means available to anyone to aid the monarch butterfly is to obtain a Monarch Waystation Seed Kit and plant the 12 varieties of nectar and host plants they contain.

Milkweed (Monarchwatch)

‘Butterfly on the Brink’ further specifies a detailed plan of action to preserve the species:


“Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor has suggested the following actions to save the migration of the monarch butterfly.

“In the United States and Canada:

• Encourage departments of transportation to adopt planting and mowing practices that favor the growth of milkweeds and nectar plants.
• Promote and support conservation organizations (such as Monarch Watch) that have habitat protection as part of their mission to encourage the planting of milkweeds and native nectar plants.
• Encourage private land owners to adopt monarch-friendly land management practices.
• Encourage milkweed restoration on private and public lands.
• Encourage gardening associations, gardeners, and homeowners to plant milkweeds.
• Encourage nature centers, zoos, schools, libraries, parks, municipalities, and other public facilities to plant milkweeds.
• Develop a habitat protection plan for the 1 billion acres of federal lands that contain monarch habitats.
• Fund outreach and educational efforts needed to accomplish the above.
• Modify existing laws, particularly in Canada, that prohibit growing milkweeds on private lands.

“In Mexico:

• Reduce the illegal logging to a manageable level with better interdiction. Given the price of lumber in Mexico it is doubtful that illegal logging can be stopped, but it can certainly be reduced. Almost every mountain forest in the area is under attack; Sierra Chincua, Las Palomas and Cerro Pelon have lost significant forest cover in recent years and the forests are being nibbled at in several other areas.
• Increase reforestation. Reforestation needs to increase from the 1 million to 2 million seedlings planted per year at present to 3 million to 5 million or even 6 million per year. Better post-planting care of seedlings is needed in areas that have been clear cut.
• Assemble stewardship conservation funds (about $20 million over the next four to five years) to pay the residents to become stewards of the forest – from planting to sustainable harvest. The stewardship program should be designed around employment but based on incentives and bonuses to assure that the program goals are achieved.
• Identify an international non-governmental organization (NGO) to administer the stewardship conservation funds.
• Create an education/outreach program for the local residents in forest management and watershed protection. The watersheds support the communities, and they need to be protected.
• Vastly increase production of both Pinus pseudostrobus and Pinus gregii at intermediate altitudes, within and outside of the reserve, to meet the lumber, paper, and particle board needs for Mexico.
• Devise creative ways to introduce alternative sources of income for the residents.
• Implement a micro-loan program for women to encourage development of family-centered enterprises.
• Outline a 40-year management plan for the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR).”

Want to learn more? The MonarchWatch site noted above includes a number of links and resources, an outline of research projects, a multimedia gallery, notes on monarch biology and conservation, a number of essays on the monarch, and much more.

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 11:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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