The familiar and emblematic monarch butterfly may be quickly becoming a thing of the past in North America.
An important pollinator species, losing the monarch will have major repercussions for the agricultural sector, especially in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
The North American monarch is notable for its amazing annual migration from southern Canada and the United States all the way to Mexico.
The monarch population from east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. winters at the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve — a United Nations World Heritage Site — located in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt pine-oak forests ecoregion on the Michoacán and Mexico State borders.
Commercially bred monarchs also join their millions of wild cousins in their winter migration to Mexico.
The loss of a valuable pollinator?
Yet deforestation in Mexico, coupled with pesticide use in the U.S., has resulted in the 2013 – 2014 season showing the lowest population of monarchs ever recorded.
The butterfly’s dire straits have prompted several environmental and conservation groups to petition the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare the monarch an endangered species.
Illegal logging in Mexico is killing the ‘king of butterflies’
After deforestation declined to almost nil in 2012 in one important monarch wintering location (and sanctuary), it soon shot up to 20 acres in 2014 (12 of which were from illegal logging).
Losses have now reached their highest levels since 2009, according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Institute of Biology at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM).
Almost all of the loss occurred in just one rural hamlet in the state of Michoacán. Loggers cut down 47 acres (19 hectares) of trees in San Felipe de los Alzati since last year’s gathering of butterflies. A total of 52 acres (21 hectares) of forest in the reserve were lost overall, including losses due to drought or pests.
Since no monarchs make round trips, they do not learn their migration routes, instead, the butterflies somehow inherit the information.
If monarch numbers drop low enough, scientists believe their numbers won’t be enough to create chemical paths for others to follow across North America.
An international solution?
In 2014, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto forged an agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper in order to protect the monarch and its habitat.
In Mexico, poor communities who live near the sanctuaries need economic alternatives that are more beneficial than illegal logging, including eco-tourism.
For the most part, efforts to stop deforestation in the forests where the butterflies winter has been successful. A total of 31 communities are not suspected of illegal logging, while only one is believed to have caused the recent devastation.
Even though the actual trees that the monarchs are using are not being cut down, the adjacent illegal logging is having that ripple effect. It’s one of those complex scenarios where human populations are relatively poor and are just trying to make a buck and survive. So there’s this pressure on the landscape and the ecosystem that needs to be addressed as part of the conservation problem.
—David Mizejewski, National Wildlife Federation (via VICE News)
Widespread pesticide use in the United States is another likely contributor to the butterfly’s decline. Other pollinators have also experienced steep population declines, such as beetles and notably honeybees.
The latter’s disappearance is known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
Pesticides don’t directly kill the butterflies, but rather starve their larvae. Along with plowing, pesticide use destroys milkweed, the unique food source of monarch larvae and where the butterflies lay their eggs.
Preserving the populations of these pollinators is not a pet project for animal lovers, environmentalists and conservationists. It is crucial for economic health and food production and therefore extremely important for us all.