The Plight of the Monarch Butterfly

Written by  Malcom Callister Wednesday, 15 March 2017 12:35
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Monarchs hang like bunches of grapes in their wintering ground in Michoacan, Mexico. Monarchs hang like bunches of grapes in their wintering ground in Michoacan, Mexico.

Every year the Monarch butterflies that we see in Frontenac Ontario migrate 7000km to a mountaintop at 10000ft in Michoacán Mexico.  The Monarch’s gather here in grape-like bunches hanging from pine trees to hibernate for the winter. Millions of butterflies can be seen in their drab winter colors hanging in these clusters.  The Mexican government has designated this a protected area, no logging or hiking trails are roped off people are not allowed to make loud noises, and flash photography is not allowed.  Yet in the past 20 years, the numbers of butterflies arriving her has dropped by 90%.  

The problem is not in Mexico it is in Canada and the United States.  The Monarch’s lack of diversified feeding/breeding habits means that it needs the wild plant known as Milkweed. Milkweed habitation in Canada and the United States is being destroyed by housing construction, farming, and herbicides. We have reduced the number and size of the Monarch’s milkweed feeding grounds. If the Monarch’s cannot get to milkweed during their migrations and summer breeding times, they will not be able to feed or reproduce.  A 90% loss in population in twenty years indicates that Monarch extinction is in sight.

In Frontenac, the Monarch Butterflies are seen as part of our summer. Their distinctive black and gold wing patterns can be seen as they flutter around our gardens, farms, and forests, pollinating our plants and adding color to our landscape.

I recently joined the Monarch Butterfly migration when I traveled to the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in the state of Michoacan, Mexico where millions of Monarch’s from Canada and the northern United States, have been hibernating each winter for recorded history. Every year millions of these butterflies gather here safe from predators, waiting for spring.

Sebastian Jannelli, of Greenpeace, reported in July of 2015 that “Over the last two decades, Monarch Butterfly populations have declined by nearly 90 percent.”

We rode the last two kilometers on horseback the added climb of 500m as the mountain rose to a height of 3100m (2 Miles) above sea level.  From the car park, we had walked the first 20-minutes up the paved pathway to the entrance of the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, and the horses. The personally imposed rest stops attested to the lack of oxygen in the air at this altitude, and how steep the walkway was.

This is technically in the Tropics, but at this elevation, a warm jacket and good shoes are required. It can snow up here. The thirty people had traveled by tour bus up the winding mountain roads through the villages of Angangueo and Ocampo, to the car park at 2400m in the small village of El Rosario, Michoacan, Mexico. The car park has Baños and tarp covered restaurants. The last bathrooms are at the end of the 20-minute walk to the entrance of the park where the horses were waited to carry us the rest of the way. There is also the option of hiking to the top. I took a horse.

This year (2017) was my first visit to El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. After the 20-minute horse ride up a winding trail with a 30-degree slope, we reached the end of the horse trail and the to start of the 10-minute hiking trail into the forest and the butterfly colony.

Monarch’s reach their hibernation ground at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary starting in November each year. The Monarch colony is roped off from the hiking trail and looks at first like large bunches of grapes hanging from the pine trees these are hibernation clusters, huddled together for warmth. On bright, warm days when the sunlight brings heat to their waiting bodies, large numbers take short, spectacular flights through the forest clearings. It appears to be flights of pure pleasure, but it is more likely to be for the practical reason of soaking up the sun's life-giving energy as they wait for the call of Spring and their flight north. It is one of the wonders of our world to see Monarch’s like this in their pale and drab faded hibernation colors. Yet we may be the last generation privileged to see it.

A butterfly has four distinct stages, these are; egg, larva, pupa and adult butterfly. For the mighty Monarch, this takes about a month from egg to adult. For the annual migration, it takes about four of these life cycles to reach the hibernation grounds. The adult Monarch will live up to six weeks during the migration seasons but will live the four/five months of the winter in a hibernation cluster huddled together for warmth ready to start the migration and breeding cycle in the spring.  

Monarchs feed and breed only on the milkweed plant. Monarch’s along with other pollinators are threatened by habitation loss and herbicides. Mexico has taken a stand with the creation of the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. This sanctuary protects the Monarch Butterflies when they are in their vulnerable winter hibernation stage. But there is another problem. A problem caused by the Monarch itself and its lack of diversified feeding/breeding habits. Milkweed habitation in Canada and the United States is being destroyed by housing construction, farming, and herbicides. We have reduced the number and size of the Monarch milkweed feeding grounds. If the Monarch’s cannot get to milkweed during their migrations and summer breeding times, they will not be able to feed or reproduce the following generations, their very survival is at risk.

I was at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in early March on a chilly day with only occasional periods of warm sunlight breaking through the cloud. Even these short burst of warmth caused hundreds of butterflies to rise from their grape-like hibernation clusters and follow the sunbeams as they moved slowly across the forest clearings. They are getting ready to migrate north with the expectation the essential milkweed will be where it has always been.

Next season will see the opening of gift stores along the tourist route from the car park, with its food stands to the base of the trails, high on this mountain. The box-like store shells were under construction as we walked past. This has been a Mexican government-inspired project to help the local villagers glean every tourist peso possible during the three-month butterfly winter season.

But will visitors come if the Monarch Butterfly die-off continues? Will people come to see were the extinct Monarch Butterfly used to come for their winter hibernation?

“Late in March we usually get a spring snowfall.” Rosa, my guide at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary informed me. “As the snow melts, the Monarch’s will start to leave this unique mountain top and head north. Then over the following three-day period, they will all be gone.” She said with almost the sad/happy look of a mother seeing her young child off to school on their first school bus. “They will return next year.” She added with a note of uncertainty in her voice.

Then Rosa gave an another sad after fought “In past years the butterflies covered this mountain top, not just the relatively small area that you are looking at today.”

I asked. “Are we the last generation to see Monarch Butterflies in their millions?”

“What are we in the collective countries of North America going to do about it?”

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