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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Monarch's Winter Home Threatened by Logging

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty reports from Mexico on the threat to the winter home of the migratory monarch butterfly. The monarchs migrate 3000 miles a year between Canada and central Mexico, but the mountain forests which harbor them during the winter are slowly being felled by logging.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

One of the most amazing migrations in the animal world is made by an insect that weighs less than 1/28th of an ounce. It's the Monarch butterfly. It's orange, with black stripes and black borders, and it's often seen during the summers in the northern states and southern Canada. Every fall Monarch butterflies trek 3000 miles to their wintering home on the mountain tops of central Mexico. But increasingly, returning Monarchs are ending up homeless. As Bob Carty reports, their habitat is steadily being crushed by the twin pressures of long term poverty and short term profits.

CARTY: To find the winter home of the monarch, you have to climb a mountain path in the Rosario butterfly sanctuary, three hours west of Mexico City. The sun here is warm, and your lungs pump in the thin air at 9,000 feet. The pine forest becomes thicker. Then you begin to see butterflies - a couple at first, then a dozen, and then suddenly, millions. The wings of one butterfly may not make a sound, but you can definitely hear a million.

(Sound of butterflies in flight)

KNUTTEN: It's incredible. Really beautiful. Especially the sound. It sounds a lot like water, maybe a long distance away, but you can really tell it's close.

CARTY: Sam Knutten is a tourist from Iowa. Around him are rivers of orange in the sky. There may be 30 million monarchs at this one site. They land on your head, your shirt, your shoes. When visitors get to this point, they become quiet, almost reverent. Sam just sits down on the ground to drink it all in.

KNUTTEN: They look like leaves, clumps of orange leaves, hanging on the sides of the trees. The branches are really weighted, they hang down like they were covered with snow. And it's almost blurring to look up into the sky.

CARTY: Native people called the monarchs "daughters of the sun." Although some of them spend the winter in California, by far the largest migration comes to Mexico. No one knows why they come here, or why they choose these trees for a winter home. And the biggest mystery, of course, is how they know how to get here in the first place. After mating in the spring, the female monarch heads north. Some of them lay eggs in northern Mexico or southern US states. The next generation takes up the same southwest-to-northeast heading, as if guided by electromagnetism, until they reach the northern states and central Canada and reproduce again over the summer.

Carlos Gottfried is the director of the monarch conservation group, Monarca. Gottfried says something miraculous happens to the third or fourth monarch generation, the one born in late August or early September.

GOTTFRIED: It will become a migrant. This migrant butterfly feeds voraciously, increases its fat content, and then at a certain period flies to Mexico. And it'll know its destiny, it'll know where to go in this pin-point on earth at the right time at the right place. And then it overwinters up to five months, in an area which is safe to it.

CARTY: But that, in a nutshell, is the problem. Every year when the monarchs come back to Mexico, they find fewer and fewer pine trees on the top of these old volcanic mountains. In a good year, 300 million monarchs return to these branches. Last year was average: about 150 million. This year the population is down by about a third, to around 100 million. Homero Aridjis was born and raised in these mountains. He is now the head of the Group of 100, an environmental movement of Mexico's writers and artists. Aridjis believes deforestation is responsible for the declining Monarch population.

ARIDJIS: Always there has been certain kinds of deforestation, but not so massive, not so brutal like in the last years. Then, because the last winter was especially cold, they were exposed to extreme cold and they died. And usually the trees protect them. There were carpets of dead butterflies on the floor.

CARTY: Not everyone blames deforestation. Some experts attribute the deaths to climate or natural population cycles. But there is no doubt that the monarch's habitat is being destroyed. Only one sixth of its total overwintering area is protected by government sanctuaries. Outside the sanctuaries, the mountaintops are being slowly denuded by loggers. Even the protected areas are threatened. Logging is banned in the core of the sanctuaries where the butterflies actually live. But it does happen. At night, poachers take out wood and sell it to local sawmills. Carlos Gottfried says that because of private greed and state inaction, about one-fifth of the Monarch's forest has been destroyed in just the last decade.

GOTTFRIED: The companies' attitude in this case is that if the wooden products arrive at their front door they should be allowed to purchase them without being blamed for illegal cutting of wrong areas.
CARTY: Why doesn't the Government of Mexico stop that?
GOTTFRIED: We're talking about a forestry department that's dramatically undermanned. The locals don't realize they're doing anything wrong. And, uh, policing in our society doesn't have a good record of being successful.

(Sound of rooster crowing)

CARTY: The "locals who don't know they're doing anything wrong" live down the mountain from the Monarchs, raising a few chickens, growing corn. This is another part of the problem - the pressure of poverty. In this region, 80 percent of the people earn less than the minimum wage. Some are now getting work as butterfly tour guides. But others still earn a little income from cutting wood, legally or illegally.

Sergio Reyes Lujan is the President of the National Ecology Institute, the man responsible for Mexico's environment policies. He admits that in the past, Mexico has not enforced its environmental regulations. He insists that that is changing. In the long term, Mr. Reyes supports programs that wean the peasants off logging and onto other activities, from Christmas-tree farming to eco-tourism. But in the meantime, he'll let them cut some wood inside the sanctuaries, in the buffer zones.

LUJAN: It is not a question that some part of the government is trying to kill the monarch butterfly. Some part of government is trying to give some productive activities to the people. And I think that that is the only way to protect the monarch butterfly. I am trying to convince you only of one thing - things are changing, but it is absolutely impossible to change from one night to the other.

(Sound of speech by President Salinas: "Esta tarde . . ." fade under )

CARTY: For the monarch butterfly, this is what might make things change for the better. Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari recently negotiated a North American Free Trade Agreement with the US and Canada. Mexico has adopted the monarch as its symbol for the pact, because the monarch migrates across the three nations. The butterfly is on government letterhead and TV commercials. Mexico has proposed to Canada and the US that they both also adopt the monarch logo.

Novelist Homero Aridjis doesn't like the North American Free Trade Agreement, because it largely ignores the environment. And when it comes to monarchs, he doesn't trust the Mexican government. He says they don't do enough to protect the existing five sanctuaries, and new sanctuaries are needed at seven more sites. Nonetheless, Homero Aridjis supported the choice of the monarch as the logo for free trade. He says it means the government now has to put more effort into saving its chosen symbol. For Homero Aridjis, it's worth saving in itself.

ARIDJIS: If you compare the monarch butterfly with the planet Earth, probably planet Earth is as small and goes in this migration route in the universe as a butterfly, and it's so fragile in the universe as a butterfly. We have to consider the value of this life, this fantastic life, even if it's very small and fragile.

(Sound of butterfly flight)

CARTY: It may be small and fragile, but the Monarch butterfly does have staying power. It's been around for 70 million years. A decade ago, a harsh winter caused a large kill-off of monarchs, but over the next ten years they recovered. They could do it again, but they won't have a chance, if they lose their winter home. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty with the monarch butterflies in Michoacan State, Mexico.



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