As monarch butterflies flutter in the oyamel trees (Abies religiosa) towering above him, Leonel Moreno keeps a close watch on what goes on at ground level. His implements are crude: white string to block visitors from taking a footpath into the densest section of the monarch colony, and a machete to cut brush. But his stern look is more than sufficient to warn forest wanderers that he won’t tolerate disruption of this highly prized habitat.
Moreno works for the Mexico state Parks and Fauna Commission. He is one of the guards charged with keeping illegal loggers out of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a 132,000-acre (53,000-hectare) swath of pine and oyamel fir forest in Mexico and Michoacán states that is the most important wintering ground of North America’s monarch butterfly.
That protection has become increasingly difficult to provide in the last decade, as pressure from illicit timber cutting has intensified. Moreno says that while the natural noises of the forest used to be punctured by the occasional sound of an ax in the distance, these days the snarl of chainsaws has become commonplace.
“People come up here from the local [communally held lands] to cut down trees,” Moreno says. “They’re allowed a certain amount of wood, but they often go beyond it. This year it’s just the same as last year. They keep coming up, mostly at night, and it’s hard to stop them.”
Moreno and monarch advocates in Mexico, the United States and Canada are pleased that the striking orange and black insect has returned to the reserve this year in far greater numbers than last year, when its winter population was alarmingly low. But experts remain concerned about the long-term viability of the butterfly’s shrinking habitat—not only here, but also along most of the insect’s 3,000-mile (4,800-km) migratory path from Canada to Mexico.
While state and local authorities in Mexico have in the last two years boosted policing of the reserve, many here question whether Mexico’s notoriously weak justice system will punish logging operations, big and small, that illegally cut timber in the area. Meanwhile, there is also concern that the Mexican, U.S. and Canadian governments are not working effectively together to safeguard the butterfly.
“We should have all three governments communicating directly with each other,” says Chip Taylor, a professor of entomology at the University of Kansas and the founder of MonarchWatch, an educational outreach program based in Lawrence, Kansas. “We have to get to be partners because right now we’re not working like partners. We need cooperative action.”
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is widely recognized for its distinctive orange and black markings and its astonishingly long migratory trip. In September, millions of monarchs leave from the northern United States and southern Canada for the six-week journey to Mexico. They typically arrive in the pine and oyamel forests of central Mexico in early November. These monarchs are part of a unique “Methuselah Generation” hatched each year. Unlike the four preceding generations, which live just five weeks, these butterflies live seven or eight months, managing to make the journey to Mexico and to start the return trip in April. Their offspring, in several generations, finish the journey back north for the summer.
Calculating the total number of monarchs that make the journey every year has proven difficult for biologists. The principal measurement used is the surface area of established colonies in Mexico between the months of December and March. Throughout the 1990s, individual colonies occupied surface areas ranging from 0.1 to 6.85 hectares (0.25 to 16.93 acres), with an average of 0.73 hectares (1.80 acres), according to a 2005 report by World Wildlife Fund Mexico (WWF).
Not all monarch populations winter in Mexico. Only monarchs found east of the Rockies do; those living west of the Rockies winter along the California coast.
As early as 1983, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) designated the monarch a threatened species. Declines in the butterfly’s population over the last decade have caught the attention of green groups and sparked an international movement to protect the butterfly’s habitat.
Climate is a key factor in determining the population year to year, says Taylor. Last year’s cold summer weather in the United States and Canada was a major reason for the huge drop in the 2004-5 population, which according to WWF occupied on average 77% less surface area than butterfly colonies in the winter of 2003-04. Early estimates indicate that this year’s warm summer helped to boost the migratory population by as much as tenfold—to an estimated total of 200 million. Still, the monarchs face a challenging winter. That’s because the forest moisture they depend on is dwindling—thanks in large part to illegal timber cutting.
“When the forest dries out from the deforestation, you don’t reach the dew point because you don’t have the condensation that you get with a dense forest,” Taylor says. “Monarchs appear to be dependent on the condensation that builds up on each other. They need the water to metabolize the fats. They can pick up water from each other. For this reason it’s important to maintain the integrity of the forest.”
Moreno, the forest guard, claims water shortages already weigh on the monarchs. “The butterflies sometimes have to go all the way to the town below because there’s not enough water here,” he says. “We’re here daily watching for [illegal loggers] because the butterflies need our help.”
Taylor and other experts also worry about a loss of milkweed in the United States and Canada. Monarchs lay eggs on milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants, and larvae feed on the plants until they metamorphose into adults.
“Among the habitat issues [in Canada are] the loss of habitat and the designation of milkweed as a ‘noxious weed,’ to be destroyed under provincial legislation,” says Donald Davis, a Toronto monarch activist who has been tagging butterflies in Ontario since 1968. Davis adds that in response to criticism, Ontario recently determined that unless milkweed grows near crops, it need not be destroyed.
In the United States, suburban development and industrialized agriculture have led to significant milkweed destruction.
“The planting of corn and soybeans has eliminated 80 million acres (32 million has) of monarch habitat,” Taylor says. “The use of the Roundup Ready herbicide on soybeans to spray and control weeds has also eliminated the milkweed.”
Taylor has started a program to create 10,000 monarch “way stations,” or micro habitats, over the next three years to help preserve monarchs in the United States. The way stations feature milkweed and nectar plants such as purple cornflower (Echinacea purpurea). Davis, meanwhile, is planting way stations in Canada.
In Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve represents the first major attempt to safeguard monarch habitat. Created in 1986 by presidential decree, the reserve spans five protection areas, each of which includes a core zone, in which logging is banned, and a buffer zone, where limited logging is allowed. The reserve covers 60 square miles (155 sq kms), with less than 17 square miles (44 sq kms) of that in the core zone.
Despite the restrictions, logging has continued in the core zones—a reflection of the rampant illegal cutting in many of Mexico’s most highly prized forests. According to the Mexican Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa), illegal logging is a major reason why Mexico has one of three highest deforestation rates in the world, with 1.48 million acres (600,000 has) of forest lost annually.
Moreno, the forest guard, says locals log on a small scale because they are poor and because they can sell the wood at a good price. “The pine is used to build stairs, the oyamel for beams and the oak for firewood,” he says. “They sell the wood in Zitacuaro [a nearby city].”
Nine years ago, José Luis Alvarez started the Michoacán Reforestation Foundation, a group that has funded the planting of two million trees outside the reserve to give locals an alternative to logging. According to Alvarez, the logging is a two-pronged problem.
“The local people are wood users—they’ve used forest products forever. They use it themselves and sell it locally,” he says. “But you also have bigger operations coming in from places like Ciudad Hidalgo. They take the wood to Mexico City, which is hungry for wood for construction and for furniture.”
As news of deforestation in the monarch reserve has spread and concern about declines in tourist visits to the area has deepened, federal, state and local agencies have begun working together to address the logging issue.
The National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (Conanp), which manages the reserve, recently allocated US$200,000 to employ 60 local people, many from marginalized indigenous communities, in seasonal conservation jobs at the reserve.
“We are also working to coordinate the various institutions, which are all now working together to police the reserve,” says Concepción Miguel Martínez, the reserve’s assistant director.
Among those institutions are Profepa, the federal police force, the Mexico state Forest Protection Agency, the police of 16 towns bordering the reserve, community forest guards and Michoacán state’s new forest police.
Meanwhile, green groups have taken part in the monarch-protection cause. WWF, for instance, created a Monarch Butterfly Fund to support community habitat-conservation projects. The group also monitors illegal logging, promotes sustainable tourism and studies winter populations of monarchs.
Whether Mexico is making meaningful progress in protecting monarch habitat remains a matter of debate, however.
Martínez asserts that since Mexican agencies began joint policing of the reserve, illegal logging in the area has decreased by up to 80%. “It’s a much better environment for us to work in,” Martínez says. “We used to be the only ones in the reserve. Now there is an average of 60 people patrolling at one time. We still see small groups of five or six men doing occasional logging, but not the big, armed gangs anymore.”
Others claim that cutting in the reserve continues to be intense. According to an article published last month in the Mexican daily Reforma by Mexican environmentalist Homero Aridjis, large illegal logging operations still fell trees there with impunity.
Aridjis points out that after municipal police in September arrested a group of illegal loggers and their timber-laden trucks, some 100 armed men believed to be part of a Michoacán state timber ring appeared on the scene and seized the vehicles from police. Though the original loggers were jailed, one was released the next day, ostensibly for lack of an official report on the crime. The move drew harsh criticism from monarch advocates, who accused authorities of corruption.
Biologists hesitate to estimate at what point habitat destruction would cause butterfly populations to crash. But earlier this year, a group of U.S. and Mexican scientists issued a report saying the butterfly faces serious risks. “Monarchs have proven resilient to many environmental stresses, but ongoing habitat loss in Mexico, the United States and Canada has the potential to drive the population below a level from which it can recover,” the scientists said. They identified illegal logging in the reserve as the chief concern, calling it the “Achilles heel.”
Experts say that as yet, Mexico, the United States and Canada have not developed a joint approach to protecting the reserve. Monarch advocates are trying to stress the need for such cooperation—most recently with a well-publicized ultra-light plane flight along the length of the monarch’s migratory path.
An alliance of the WWF; Telcel, a Mexican telecommunications firm; and the state government of Michoacán funded the 3,000-mile, 72-day flight from Montreal, Québec to Agangeo, Michoacán, as well as a one-hour documentary about the monarch.
Vico Gutiérrez, the pilot and creator of the project, named his plane Papalotzin, the Aztec Nahuatl word for royal butterfly.
- Eliza Barclay