Year of crisis for Monarch butterflies 

The horse I rode up the Perro Celón mountain last year to see the Monarch butterflies won’t be carrying tourists this year. That’s because the butterfly sanctuary there has been closed as a precaution against COVID-19.

This year, the horse - like the one shown below (*see correction) - may be employed dragging logs down the steep rocky slopes. The trees are the Oyamel pines that create the cool and moist microclimate that provides safe conditions for the butterflies to overwinter in a state of diapause (dormancy).

But this year, the Monarch migration is at a perilous point with desperately poor communities turning to extraction from the forest for survival as jobs are lost in the COVID crisis.

I travelled over 4,600 kilometres south last year, the same distance this tiny insect flies every fall to return to the same colony site, often to the same tree that an ancestor left in the spring, five generations ago. To see the butterflies cloaking the trees in massive roosts and spread across the sky in dense clouds was truly magical.

horse pulling logI came away with an understanding that the butterfly, which has gone through major population declines in recent decades, continues to face many threats in its wintering grounds - climate change, legal and illegal logging, avocado plantations and development, and the poverty of the inhabitants of the towns and communities within the reserve.

However, I also felt hope, because of exciting initiatives on Perro Celón - one of several sanctuaries within UNESCO’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve - led by the husband-and-wife team of Joel Moreno and Ellen Sharp. 

Joel is native to Macheros, a community at the entrance to the sanctuary, with extensive family and business connections throughout the region. Ellen Sharp is American, a cultural anthropologist with wide-ranging academic contacts. Together, they started the JM Butterfly B&B in 2013 to provide sustainable employment that would not degrade the forest. 

But logging continued and they realized they needed to do more. In 2017, they started Butterflies and their People, a charity that employs forest guardians to patrol the area to stop illegal logging, undertake reforestation projects, clearing trails and remove garbage. Illegal logging declined dramatically. 

The charity now employs six forest guardians. The bed and breakfast employs 20 people. Another 150 work as guides and horse handlers. Each of these workers support many more in the close-knit community of Macheros, which has a population of 2,000.

My travelling companion Ellen Hartwick and I left last December feeling optimistic that the community development initiatives could turn things around and be a model for elsewhere where other species are threatened by human poverty. “It’s totally do-able,” Ellen said. The protected MBBR is so small - 56,259 hectares, a little bigger than Springwater Township, where I live - and the number of people who delight in the butterfly when it spreads across its 100 million acres of summer breeding grounds in the US and Canada is so vast - how can we NOT save the wintering grounds?

Sadly, in the month after we returned, the head administrator of El Rosario, one of the other sanctuaries within the MBBR, was killed, his body found in a well in a nearby town. A few days later the body of an El Rosario tour guide was found. No one has been charged in their deaths. It’s not known whether the murders were attacks on environmentalism or whether competing economic interests were in play.

A Voice of America reporter visited the MBBR in the wake of the murders. On Cerro Pelón she came across evidence of illegal logging and “found that in this place of beauty, there was an underside of lawlessness, corruption and poverty that could threaten the sustainability of the biosphere.”

Monarchs 2020 English WWFThen COVID struck. Illegal logging ramped up. Not only were sources of revenue disappearing at the community level, but members who had been employed in towns and cities were laid off and returning home, having lost their income.

Ellen and Joel were taking bookings and devising safe protocols for B&B visitors, hoping to keep their operation going on a reduced basis. But in October the local authorities at Macheros decided not to open the Perro Celón Monarch butterfly sanctuary this year, citing concerns about outsiders bringing the corona virus to the community. (One other sanctuary is also closed, several others remain open.) 

This was devastating for the bed and breakfast and the charity. But Joel and Ellen are not the kind of people who admit defeat. Adopt a Colony is a project they devised to protect the jobs of their staff and the forest guardians, and also keep people like us abreast of what’s happening to the butterflies in this year of crisis.  

Adopt a Colony offers a subscription (US$89) to a multi-media e-magazine that’s sent out electronically twice a month. Each includes a 7-10 minute video of a virtual butterfly tour, a short video and article with an update on how the colony is developing, a cultural feature, an interview and a short video of natural beauty. Google: Adopt a Colony Butterflies and their People. There have been two issues of Adopt a Colony so far (back copies are provided with a subscription), and there are 8 more to go, until the butterflies have left by the end of March. The e-magazine is released on the 15th and 30th of each month.

Reports from Macheros are not encouraging. The Monarchs are more active than they should be in this early part of the season. A butterfly colony the forest guardians were monitoring has moved to a completely new area of the mountain.  Ellen worries that this means it’s getting too warm because the canopy is being breached.

Information released by World Wildlife Fund-Mexico in March 2020 indicated that in 2019-2020, the area of forest occupied by monarch butterflies was 7 acres, down from 15 acres in the 2018 - 2019 season. This is estimated to mean 150 million butterflies were overwintering in 2019-20, a population decrease of 53% since the previous season.

A unique forest microclimate and the creature that depends on it… facing jeopardy, one log at a time.

*Correction: The horse (not the one I rode) was photographed in April 2020, having been in the line-up for tourists 6 weeks previously, and was used in logging legally, just outside the protected area. An earlier version of this blog gave a date of a few years ago and implied that the horse was being used for illegal logging. 

I recently did a presentation on the Monarch migration and my visit to Mexico. It’s on YouTube.

Previous blogs

Monarchs embarked on the journey north

On the Monarch migration trail: It's such a long way
Catherine Krever
- 10 December 2020 at 04:30pm

Fascinating and so heartbreaking. Powerfully communicated, this story should find a wider audience - maybe Quirks and Quarks, or at least local newspapers?
Brian Morris
- 10 December 2020 at 06:20pm

This is such a tragedy both for the Monarchs and the Mexican people. The long term environmental consequences is disheartening. Without the financial and legal support of their government it makes it very difficult for local people to sustain habitat preservation for the benefit of the "Monarchs" Such a shame.
- 10 December 2020 at 08:19pm

this is so sad. What can i do to help from a non financial standpoint?
Julia Shaw
- 11 December 2020 at 10:15am

So incredibly sad - one more nail in the coffin of planet earth
- 16 December 2020 at 07:52pm

Hi Tanya,

The most important thing we can do is non-financial, and that's letting people know what's happening and what can be done.

Yesterday was the long-awaited day for the US government to decide whether the Monarch would qualify for endangered species status, with the resources and protection that would entail.

Well, the government said Yes, the Monarch does qualify, but No, it will not be listed for protection because the government lacks the resources.

There’s a reference to other species being more in need which is sheer nonsense, a tawdry attempt to play one species off against another. We in North America expect Mexico to carry the burden of defending the wintering grounds and we plead poverty when it’s time for us to step up. That’s shameful.

Where does Canada stand? The Monarch has been listed as endangered federally and of special concern in Ontario. Does this mean anything? I’m not aware of either federal or provincial efforts to address threats to habitat, migration route and other issues faced by the Monarch.

This is a time we are all called upon to step outside our comfort zone. We need to let our political leaders know that we want our taxpayer dollars to be used to support the Monarchs and all pollinators. From First Nations chiefs to MPs and MPPs, we want them to work internationally to build a sustainable support program for the wintering grounds.

Locally, ask your members of council not to spray pesticides (which would include Bt for gypsy moth, so from the Monarch caterpillar's point of view, spraying Bt is only acceptable in areas where it's not feeding, e.g. where there is no milkweed. Other butterflies feel the same way about their host plants), to plant milkweed and nectar plants in parks and on roadsides and to stop unnecessary mowing. Note: there’s a Mayor’s pledge program - get your mayor to sign on if he or she hasn’t already.

And in your own space, plant for pollinators, eschew pesticides, eat organic and spread the word. Your voice could be the one that makes the difference.
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