Border Crossings: Monarch Butterflies

Posted on  by wildinaminute

Monarch Butterflies Looking Good in 2019 (Trevor Hance)

El Rosario Sanctuary (photo: Trevor Hance)

In January 2019, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the transvolcanic belt of Central Mexico, where I experienced beautiful forests, people, and millions of monarch butterflies who overwinter there each year. I am grateful to Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund for being selected to join them on an expedition to the monarch butterfly sanctuaries there to learn more of the history, ecology, and phenology about the monarchs, and the people impacted by their “discovery” in 1976.    

Migration Population

In the Americas, las mariposas monarcas (i.e. – monarch butterflies) have two large populations, one that makes a short migration in California and the other, an unbelievable 5-generation, 3,000 mile migration from the Oyemel (i.e. – fir tree) forests of Central Mexico to Canada and back. While the migrating populations only live a few weeks to a month, the overwintering population in Mexico can live 6 to 9 months.

Once in Mexico, the monarchs roost among 12 sanctuaries, and we visited two, both very different, but both filled with massive numbers of butterflies. The first sanctuary we visited was El Rosario, one of the most popular sanctuaries. We were very fortunate with butterfly-viewing-weather on our trip and based on what we had seen in November back in Texas, I felt a little optimistic that we were going to see something special — turns out I was right, and the Monarchs had a rebound season in 2019.

A Species in Decline

Despite the strong numbers in 2019, the trend is that monarch numbers are in decline, and the monarchs have been granted endangered species status by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global leading authority on the status of biological diversity.

Human actions (i.e. – changing land use patterns, deforestation in Mexico, agriculture chemicals used throughout the United States), extreme weather (i.e. – droughts/hurricanes), and phenological shifts are largely responsible for the decline, and monarch numbers are down from their historical highs (first measured in the 1990s).  A report released in January 2019 showed the numbers in the California population were down 86% to about 30,000 monarchs total, and down globally overall over the last 20 years.

Is the IUCN the Same as the Endangered Species Act?

It is worth noting that the declaration by the IUCN does not necessarily mean there will be additional actions by the United States (federal) government. Without delving too deeply into the law in this post, being listed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act triggers action by the U.S. Government, and in particular the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FISH”), to protect a species and their habitat. In 2020, FISH found that listing the monarch butterfly as an endangered or threatened species was warranted but precluded by higher priority actions, and declined to amend the Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants.

FISH added the monarch butterfly to the candidate list and assigned it a listing priority number of eight, indicating that the magnitude of threats is moderate and those threats are imminent. (note: I’ll write some of the law and economics of ecology separately).

Lots of folks love monarchs so expect continued drumbeats advocating for their protection, and keep an eye on “RAWA,” or “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act,” which has bipartisan support and will shift some federal funding to states to support conversation and conservation of species of greatest conservation need. Texas stands to gain about $50M in funding in RAWA passes (Congressional trackerbrief explainer). And, for what it’s worth, Texas is a major flyway for the migrating monarchs, and has prioritized their conservation with a specific plan for monarch conservation.

Tell Me More

No single picture will do the experience in Mexico justice, so I am building some avenues that connect the law, economics, ecoservices and aesthetics from a variety of perspectives to demonstrate why pollinators (including monarchs) are important, and what steps can be taken at home to support success for this important umbrella species and other pollinators that provide necessary eco-services for over 75% of our food crops.

For the time being, here is one of my favorite photos from my time in Mexico amongst millions of “mariposas monarcas.”

Photo: Trevor Hance

Conservation Education in Angangueo

As part of the expedition we visited a third grade class at the local elementary school. The school is in “downtown” Angangueo, which is a picturesque mountain village of less than 10,000 people that sits in a steep valley at about 9,000 feet above sea level (the monarchs roost about 2,000 feet higher in the sanctuaries nestled in the mountains above the village). The school itself is completely nondescript. From the sidewalk, we entered through a large metal door to an indoor courtyard where the students were having some playtime, kicking soccer balls and playing chase, which shifted to immediate curiosity when they noticed the obviously-not-local visitors who just entered the school.

Angangueo, Mexico

The students quickly crowded around us with the same inherent curiosity all kids share. The teacher in me took over and with my horrible efforts at recalling my college Spanish classes, I started asking the kids questions like “¿Cuantos años tienes?” (9 or 10), “¿Te gusta escuela?” (si), and “¿Prefieres la ciencia o leer?” (hurra, ciencias!). They were immediately responsive, forgiving of my poor pronunciation, and overall, welcomed that I was at least trying to satisfy their curiosity. Indeed, as the only visitor to make the effort to speak Spanish, I was invited to join the fútbol game, but had to decline as the teachers showed up to take us all to class.

Photo: Trevor Hance

Several fellow travelers brought supplies to give to the school and there was a lot of excitement with the new crayons that each student received. I spent some time visiting with Dulce Marisol, who more than happy to let her correct my Spanish as we worked on an assignment. We finished our visit the way I finish many of my emails, and I got a big smile out of her when she learned to say “High-5, Maestro Hance!”

The Long Game

I will have more to say about the science, conservation, economics, and education aspects of the monarchs, but suffice it to say I am impressed with the monarch and forestry-based conservation efforts underway in Mexico, and a huge high-5 goes to @NatHab and @World_Wildlife for their work there over the past 20 years. The long-lens investment provides hope for sustainability and success of monarchs in Mexico, as well as in California, but it will take increased literacy and commitment from the US to be successful. Maybe if we could develop pollinator friendly solar farms?

For now, subscribe to the blog and thanks for being part of the journey!

Can you tell me if this one is male or female? Let me know in the comments.
Photo: Trevor Hance



Filed under:  #Angangueo#bordercrossing#butterflies#ecology#education#Mexico#migration#milkweed#monarchs#nathab#naturalhabitatadventures#nature#naturephotography#roundup#worldwildlifefund, #Conservation #pollinators, #ecoservices, #Angangueo#bordercrossing#butterflies#conservation#Conservation #pollinators#ecology#education#Mexico#migration#milkweed#monarchs#nathab#naturalhabitatadventures#nature#naturephotography#roundup#worldwildlifefundEdit