The number of monarch butterflies wintering in the mountains of central Mexico is down 22% from the previous year, and the number of trees lost from their favorite wintering spots has tripled.
Frosts and “temperature extremes” in the United States may have played a role in the butterfly’s decline during the last winter season, said Humberto Peña, director of nature reserves in Mexico.
Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada spend the winter in the spruce forests of the western state of Michoacan, west of Mexico City. The total area they occupied the previous winter decreased to 5.4 acres, from 7 acres the year before.
Monarch butterflies are officially on the endangered species list
The Annual Butterfly Count does not count the individual number of butterflies, but rather the acres they cover when they cluster together on the branches of trees.
The area of forest cover suitable for butterflies lost has risen to 145 acres, from 46.2 acres last year, said Gloria Tavera, director of conservation for the Mexican Commission on National Protected Areas.
Illegal logging has been a major threat to the pine and spruce forests where butterflies gather in groups to keep warm. But experts said more than half of tree losses this year were due to the removal of dead or diseased trees damaged by fire, storms or pests. Lack of rain has put the trees into water stress, Tavera said, making them more vulnerable to disease, pests and fire.
Jorge Ricardes, Mexico director of the Wildlife Conservation Group, blamed climate change,
“The monarch butterfly is an indicator of these changes,” Rickards said.
In the past, critics say, removing diseased trees was used as an excuse to cut down healthy trees for lumber.
Tavera said she had no evidence of that happening this year, adding, “I don’t think anyone is lying.”
Each year, monarchs return to the United States and Canada on an annual migration threatened by the loss of the milkweed they feed on north of the border and the deforestation of butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico.
Due to a myriad of factors, the numbers of monarchs have declined in recent years. Experts say drought, extreme weather, loss of habitat — particularly milkweed where monarchs lay their eggs — as well as the use of pesticides and herbicides and climate change all pose threats to the species’ migration.
Illegal logging also continues to weaken the reserve, and Peña said there are plans to deploy National Guard troops to the reserve to prevent this.
But open and illegal logging is actually down 3.4% this year, largely due to residents’ efforts to protect their forests, a change of heart for many.
For example, on January 23, the community farm community of Crescencio Morales—once the area with the worst illegal logging—fields its first class of officially trained and certified forest rangers.
The 58-strong Community Guard of Crescencio Morales began life several years ago as a ragtag band of farmers armed with a variety of weapons, before the state government offered to train and equip them.
The community’s struggle began in the early 2000s, when residents fought to drive out drug smugglers and illegal loggers and redeem themselves in the process.
“In 1998, the people of Crescencio Morales decided to set fire to the monarch butterfly colonies, in order to cut down the trees in the land,” recalls Erasmo Alvarez Castillo, leader of the group, or ejido, farmers in the village.
Residents soon saw two things: illegal logging brought with it the incursion of drug cartels and neighboring communities who were making money from tourism.
MONARCH BUTTERFLIES WINTERING IN CA REBOUND for the second year in a row
So starting around 2000, farmers began reforesting the mountain slopes. But they still have to kick out the drug cartels. It was a long and arduous battle that eventually forced the farmers to take up arms, after calls to the police to help defend the community went unanswered.
Matters came to a head when the city declared itself an independent, self-governing municipality.
Faced with rebellious armed farmers, the government decided to try to professionalize the community force and train it to protect the forests.
Now, with the butterflies back, the village can dream of attracting tourists.
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“The land we have on top of the mountain is very beautiful. It will be good for a tourist site,” Alvarez Castillo said. “The plan is to create trails and build cabins – a tourist site without destroying the environment.”
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