Commercially raised Monarch butterfly released in Grapevine, TX makes it to Mexico

They said it couldn’t be done. That a commercially raised Monarch butterfly couldn’t migrate. But Jenny Singleton of the Grapevine Butterfly Flutterby Festival and one commercially grown Monarch proved that a butterfly tagged and released in Texas can find its way 1,114 miles south to join its brothers and sisters in Mexico for the winter.

Grapevine Festival

Is this WGX139? We don’t know, but it IS one of the 710 butterflies released at the Grapevine Flutterby Festival last year. Photo by Jenny Singleton

Monarch WGX139 was raised in a commercial butterfly farm, probably somewhere in Florida.  On Wednesday, October 12, 2016, Connie Hodsdon of Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton shipped more than 500 Monarch butterflies to Grapevine, Texas. The community sits between Dallas and Ft. Worth, right on the IH35 “Monarch Highway.” Each fall during peak Monarch migration season, usually the second or third week in October, Grapevine celebrates its annual Butterfly Flutterby Festival with the release of hundreds of butterflies. This year, the Festival’s 20th, it will take place Saturday, October 14.

Bradenton’s box full of Monarchs, each packed in individual glycine envelopes and surrounded by protective styrofoam and ice packs, arrived for last year’s festivities on Thursday, October 13. Butterfly wranglers Jenny Singleton and other volunteers tagged the butterflies upon their arrival, then moved them to a large, open air cage where sliced oranges and watermelon awaited. Singleton and her crew regularly spritzed the butterflies with water throughout the day on Friday to keep them hydrated. Fresh fruit was replenished as needed while the butterflies awaited their Saturday debut.

Tagged Monarchs await their release at the Grapevine Flutterby Festival. Photo by Jenny Singleton

Starting at 10 AM on Saturday, Festival-goers arrived for a costumed parade, butterfly crafts and exhibits, a “migration station,” face painting and more at the Grapevine Botanical Gardens. Monarch butterfly releases occurred hourly in the morning, and children of all ages vied for the limited supply, often waiting in line to receive an envelope which contained one of hundreds of Monarchs ordered specifically for the occasion. The release ceremony finished with a countdown–three, two, one. Off they go! WGX139 was among the flyers.

WGX139 arrived in Mexico more than a thousand miles later, at almost 8,500 feet in altitude. It was recovered 138 days after its release at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 2, 2017.

The amazing journey challenges what Monarch butterfly scientists have been saying for years: commercially raised Monarch butterflies do not migrate.

The conventional wisdom has always been that butterflies coddled in a laboratory setting with ideal conditions such as infinite amounts of milkweed and protection from predators likely would not develop the Darwinian skill set to migrate to Mexico. Scientists have also bandied about different theories about how important the sun’s cues are, and how they are tied to a butterfly’s location and the ambient temperature to which they are accustomed. More than one scientist has told me that a butterfly raised in Florida and released in Texas would never make it to Mexico.

In addition, it’s likely that WGX139 was not raised on milkweed. Bradenton’s butterflies often consume Calatropis gigantea or Calatropis procera, members of the dogbane family. Butterfly breeders sometimes use this African native because it has such enormous leaves and provides ample fodder for hungry caterpillars. It has similar chemical properties to milkweed.

“That’s a pretty interesting event,” said Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly experts in the world. “It shows that they’re adapting to local conditions in Texas, otherwise they wouldn’t get to Mexico.”

Incredible journey for an international traveler? WGX139 likely traveled from Florida to Michoacán–2,277 miles from birth to roosting sites. Map via Google

“That’s interesting. That’s very interesting,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch tagging program used by Singleton and thousands of others who participate in the citizen science initiative. “I imagine a few will do it, but I can’t imagine very many of them will do it. It depends on how you handle them and what the temperatures are when they’re released.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of Monarch Joint Venture doesn’t think that a single Monarch making it to Mexico should dismiss concerns of disease and the other perceived threats caused by commercial butterfly rearing and mass releases. When asked to comment, she directed us to a webpage devoted to the dangers of captive breeding and mass releases–disease, dilution of the gene pool, and interference with scientific studies of population dynamics. WGX139’s international travels and arrival in Mexico “doesn’t really argue against these concerns,” said Oberhauser via email.

Monarch caterpillars on Calatropis, a member of the dogbane family. Photo by Connie Hodsdon

Dr. Sonia Altizer of Project Monarch Health at the University of Georgia, was also skeptical. “I agree that some growers are attentive to disease management, which is encouraging to see.  But others are not – and the concerns about disease extend to butterfly enthusiasts who rear Monarchs in large numbers but for no commercial gain.  Hopefully as more people become aware of OE and other diseases, and how to prevent them, the rearing conditions will improve, but my general impression is that there are many more productive ways people can help Monarchs aside from rearing.”

Citizen scientist Singleton has her own theories. She believes some of the butterflies from the Festival lingered to nectar on local flowers and to wait for the wind to shift. Singleton, who was tagging Monarchs back when they still used glue to adhere them to the wings, said she found several Festival-tagged Monarchs in her yard.

Grapevine Flutterby Festival wrangler Jenny Singleton with her grandson, Davis Berg. Photo by Peggy Moore

“I found four or five tagged butterflies from the Festival on my bushes three weeks later,” she said. “I think they hung out and nectared and caught those southbound winds,” said Singleton, recalling “big southern winds for two weeks” in late October.

Connie Hodson, the butterfly breeder who supplied the bulk of the livestock to the Festival, is delighted to know that WGX139 made it to the Mexican mountains.  “Not only are our butterflies OE free, they’re super intelligent,” said Hodsdon by phone, referring to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, the unpronounceable spore-driven disease that often finds Monarchs in crowded conditions.

Hodsdon prides herself on a clean operation and runs her Flutterby Gardens (no formal association with the Grapevine Butterfly Flutterby Festival) with the help of seven seasonal staff from her home on a one-acre lot just north of Sarasota. “We’re realy proud of our butterflies,” she said. “Our butterflies are an asset.”

Hodsdon supplied the bulk of Monarchs for our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio last year. We ordered more than 500 Denaus plexippus from her for our October 22 event, which was modeled after the Flutterby Festival.

David Berman

David Berman, PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, is studying late generation Monarch butterflies and parasitoids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

None of our Monarchs were recovered in Mexico, but 20 of them were netted about two miles downstream. Graduate student David Berman from the University of Oklahoma happened to be in town that day performing a study on fifth instar Monarch butterflies to try to determine how late generations might affect the migration.

According to Berman, 20 butterflies tagged at our Festival on October 22 were netted on the San Antonio River a day later, October 23. None of them had OE, which is one of the major concerns scientists have for commercially raised Monarchs.

That’s because breeders like Hodsdon run a tight shop. She is meticulous and even bleaches the plants that the butterflies eat to rid their food of potential spores, virus or bacteria. Hodsdon teaches a course on how to raise OE-free Monarchs to professional butterfly breeders via the International Butterfly Breeders Association. Her process includes rounds of bleaching, sanitary conditions,

Flutterby Gardens flighthouse in Bradenton, Florida. Photo by Connie Hodsdon

gloves and passion mixed with pragmatism. “Because every Florida Monarch I found in the wild tested positive for OE,” she said. “And not just a little, a lot of OE.” Hodsdon’s appreciation for butterflies is not limited to Monarchs. She raises 20 different species, shipping thousands out each week during high season. “And I’m not getting rich, because it takes so much work,” she said.

So if commercially bred Monarch butterflies can migrate and responsible breeders can raise them disease free, is it possible they could be tapped to bolster the declining migratory population?

The science is unfinished on that, but one can always hope.

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Monarch butterfly migrating population drops 27%, freak sleet storm to blame

Officials in Mexico announced Wednesday that the population of migrating Monarch butterflies dropped 27% this season, marking a setback in two consecutive years of growth from the historic low of 2014. A freak sleet storm gets the blame.

Piedra Herrada

Our friend Regina Moya went to visit la familia in Valle del Bravo with a side trip to Piedra Herrada Sanctuary in the state of Mexico. PHoto by Regina Moya

Just last year, we celebrated a tripling of the population, a reassuring turn of events from the grim news of 2014 when the total migrating population of Monarch butterflies could fit into a single Wal-Mart store with 30,000 square feet to spare. That sad fact had butterflies occupying only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) of high elevation forest at their winter roosting grounds in Michoacán and the state of Mexico. The numbers grew in 2015 to 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres), then jumped in 2016 to 4.1 hectares (10 acres).

This year, the butterflies covered only 2.91 hectares (7.19 acres).

Scientists and conservationists estimate the population by counting the number of hectares occupied and multiplying the estimated number by 50 million Monarchs per hectare. That suggests this year’s population numbers 145.5. million. The goal of conservationists is to rebuild the population to its historic average of 6.07 hectares (15 acres), or about 300 million butterflies.

The scene at El Chincua sanctuary  two weeks after the February 2016 storm.
Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

Scientists and others who follow Monarch butterflies were not surprised by the findings. Dr. Lincoln Brower said by phone that he thought the numbers would be even worse. Many of us noted fewer Monarch butterflies than usual. Ruth Bowell of Troy, Ohio, shared her thoughts on the 2016 season on the DPLEX-list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 scientists, citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly fans. “My numbers this year were dismal until late August when I started really seeing caterpillars…If they have a good winter, maybe we’ll see more returning than last year.” Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, who studies the forest where the Monarchs roost, expressed the same sentiment, remarking “That was due to the winter storm in March.”

The storm to which he refers quashed the optimism of February 2016’s dramatic population growth within a few weeks of its announcement when, on March 11, climate change dealt a deadly blow to the rebounded Monarch population. A freak freeze and sleet storm descended on Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserves, decimating 100 acres of Oyamel firs and killing an estimated 50 million butterflies. The tragedy occurred at a most vulnerable time. Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs begin to flee the forest and head north for South Texas in search of milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.

Those of us who live in the flyway hoped for a robust recovery over the course of the spring and summer breeding seasons. The weather cooperated, but apparently even good conditions–plenty of rain in the Texas Funnel, ample milkweed and nectar plants in the spring and fall–couldn’t make up for season’s cursed beginning.

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

Omar Vidal, head of the Mexico office of the World Wildlife Fund, told the Associated Press that the unusual winter storm likely played a role in the steep dip in Monarch numbers. “The reduction in the area of forest they occupied this year is most probably due to the high mortality caused by storms and cold weather last year,” he said. Here’s the full report, in Spanish.

Conservation efforts including pollinator habitat restoration and outreach continue, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough. Just today, the National Wildlife Federation, NWF met in San Antonio, the first Mayor’s Monarch Champion City, and finalized the completion of a citywide Monarch butterfly conservation plan. The document, assembled over several months and with the input of more than a dozen local organizations under the umbrella name Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative will lay out a comprehensive conservation and pollinator habitat restoration strategy. The effort will kick off and the plan shared at the upcoming San Antonio Monarch Butterfly Festival March 4 -5 at the San Antonio Zoo.

“During the meeting, the population count from Mexico was announced,” said Grace Barnett, Monarch Outreach Coordinator, South Central Regional Center for NWF. “It was read aloud–a strong reminder of  how important our work is and how much more there is to be done.”

Vidal underscored the work ahead when he told the Associated Press, “We cannot control the climate, but we can do much better in eradicating illegal logging in the reserve and tackling habitat loss in the U.S. and Canada,” Vidal said. “But, even if Mexico’s overwintering sites never lose another tree, without food and habitat along the migration routes, the forests will soon bid farewell” to the Monarchs.

Reports from the sanctuaries have been extremely upbeat, including one issued the same day as the declining population report. Journey North shared its first bulletin from roosting grounds correspondent Estella Romero, coupled with a note that tried to manage readers’ expectations with a prediction that numbers would be low this year.

Estela Romero of Journey North visited the roosting sites last week and raved about what appeared to be high numbers. But the population actually slipped from last year. Photo via Journey North

Under the headline “Population News: Waiting for the Official Count” Elizabeth Howard, founder of the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrations of Monarchs and other species, warned that observations made throughout the year suggested “a small population has been predicted — perhaps as low as 1 hectare.”

But Romero was effusive in describing her recent visit to El Rosario and El Chincua sanctuaries on February 4, sharing a dispatch hailing their seemingly high numbers.

“As I got nearer to the core of the colony, I just could not believe my eyes! It seemed as if I was looking to one of the best spectacles of the last years, in terms of population….Tens and tens of trees were full with clusters – more than 50 trees covered– on top, by one side, by the middle, with heavy clusters or lighter clusters hanging…It was a wonderful spectacle,” wrote Romero.

Edith Smith, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner/founder of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, expressed exasperation about the negative headlines in an email to the Association for Butterflies email list, a listserv for commercial and hobbyist butterfly breeders. “Am I the only one who wishes positive information about Monarch butterflies was shared at times?,” wrote Smith. “Numbers are down by 27 percent from last year. BUT they are UP from the year before….We’re up over four times the lowest we had. That is still GOOD news.”

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Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium tackles tough questions

“Each one is a hole in the sky through which we can get a glimpse of heaven”.

–Mississippi wildlife artist Walter Anderson

That was how moderator Dan Goodgame launched our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium October 21 at the Pearl Studio.

Monarch cat on swamp

The “new normal”?  Monarch butterflies continued to reproduce late into the season this year as warm temperatures caused many to break their diapause and lay eggs rather than migrate. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The 89-minute discussion was just one of three events that made San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival–three-days of art, science and celebration commemorating our favorite migrating insect, Danaus plexipus–such a success last month.

We share the video of that symposium in its entirety today, thanks to the generous support of the John and Florence Newman Foundation, a San Antonio foundation that invests in progressive initiatives in San Antonio and beyond.newman-logo

Questions raised in the symposium discussion are timely given the recent election and the long, late extremely unusual migration of Monarchs this season. As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are STILL seeing Monarch butterflies in our gardens and wildscapes; policy questions about how President-elect Trump will address climate change and pollinator advocacy hang in the balance.

The symposium brought together an equal number of scientists and citizen scientists representing all three countries touched by the Monarchs’ North American travels to a sold-out house.

27-credit-artielimmer-texastechuniversity

On the panel: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, rock star climate change expert from Texas Tech University. Born in Canada, Hayhoe “grew up with Monarchs” and had just returned from a visit to the White House where Leonardo DiCaprio asked her for her autograph.

 

 

Cathy Downs, from Comfort, Texas, works as an education cathyoutreach specialist  for Monarch Watch.

 

 

 

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz RomeroMexican forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, of Michoacán, had been visiting Trinity University as a guest professor in ecological sciences; Dr. Saenz Romero studies the Oyamel forest where the Monarchs roost each winter.

 

 

maeckleheadshotMonika Maeckle, of the Texas Butterfly Ranch. That’s me. I was on the panel, but we didn’t plan it that way. At the last minute, our good friend Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975, was unable to attend because of a medical condition. I took her place.

The lively discussion touched on everything from the pros and cons of Tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica, to whether or not “assisted migration,” or moving the Oyamel forest in Mexico where the Monarchs roost 2,000 feet higher in elevation to save it from climate change constitutes “interfering with nature.” Mitchell Hagney of the Rivard Report wrote a great wrap-up of the symposium the day after it happened.

At almost 90 minutes, the video may be a bit long for some. Thus, I have noted what I found to be some of the more interesting points with time stamps so those in a rush can skip to the parts that most interest them.

Two videos are also embedded in this one. Our butterfly friendly San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, whose signature on the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge made San Antonio the first Monarch Champion City in the country, recorded a welcome video for the Festival since she was unable to join us because of a previous commitment. That two-minute video can be viewed at minute 2:17, or you can watch it at the bottom of this post.

Our media partners, the Rivard Report, also made a lovely video with footage taken along the Llano River during peak migration to illustrate a story covering the Festival. That video can be viewed at 4:22.

If you want to skip all that and go straight to the discussion, fast forward to 7:30. Other notes/highlights are noted below.

*                   *                 *                *                       *               *               *

2:17 Mayor Taylor’s Welcome Video. “I can’t think of a better symbol of the bonds we share as people and as nations than the Monarch Butterfly,” says San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor.

4:22 Rivard Report video.

7:30 Moderator Dan Goodgame introduces panelists.

10:25 Video “Get Well Card” for Catalina Trail, from audience.

11:27 Maeckle explains how she came to know Catalina Trail.

16:01 Cathy Downs offers a state-of-the-union of the Monarch butterfly population.

19:27 Dr. Hayhoe discusses how climate change works as a “threat multiplier” to the Monarch butterfly migration and many other issues.

21:06 Dr. Saenz Romero explains how the unique ecosystem of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico serves as a blanket for the Monarchs’ in the winter, raising the temperature up to 10 degrees under the forest canopy, keeping the Monarchs from freezing.

oyamel drought

Dr. Saenz Romero discussed how drought and extreme weather has been tough on the Oyamel trees. They can’t get enough water from the soil during the dry season to keep the tree tops from dying. Photo by Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero

28:35 Dr. Saenz Romero introduces the “radical” idea of moving the forest.   “I may be crucified by some ecologists,” he says.

“So when you plant Oyamel at higher altitudes than it exists today, we have to move the population higher. Then we have to hope, some say pray, that the Monarchs will change the location of their overwintering sites. We don’t know if it will happen. As you know, the generation that got to Mexico had never been to Mexico.”

“By 2090 there will not be a single square kilometer of climate that is good for the trees where the Monarchs go for over wintering.” –Dr. Saenz Romero

32:30 Dr. Saenz Romero bemoans the challenges of moving the forest higher, noting that even though “there’s no soil” above the tree line, that  has not stopped avocado growers from trucking in soil to Michoacán to grow avocados “for your Superbowl.”

35:05 Goodgame poses the question: will the butterflies follow the forest up the mountain if the Oyamel forest is moved? Downs tackles the question.

36:43 Hayhoe chimes in that indeed the butterflies could adapt—if they have time, “So after the last ice age there was a huge warming of the planet. That warming happened over 10-50 times longer than what we are seeing today.”

“If the climate changes more slowly, will the butterflies adapt? I think the answer is, yes. Without a doubt. I think the question really is: can they adapt this quickly without help? And it isn’t just the butterflies.”–Dr. Hayhoe

39:30 Cathy Downs suggests what we can do to mitigate the damage of climate change, including planting milkweeds and late season nectar plants.

43:30 Downs and Maeckle discuss the odd, late Monarch migration this fall and how Monarchs are more frequently breeding this season. “They aren’t supposed to do that, they aren’t reading the book!” says Downs. “They are supposed to be in diapause.”

44:00 Maeckle brings up the Tropical milkweed debate—the question of what are native plants in the Monarch world. “If it’s ok to move a forest out of its native zone, why not a host plant?”

45:39 Saenz attempts to answer the question.

48:19 Dr. Hayhoe offers ideas about how to talk about climate change. “The reason why we care about a changing climate is because it takes something that we already care about, that we’re already concerned about, and it puts that extra straw on the camel’s back.” she says. “So in the case of the butterflies, there are already many reasons to be concerned.”

“What is climate change doing to the butterflies?” It’s doing a few different things. It is actually changing their phenology—what does that mean? It means when they breed and when they migrate. We just heard first-hand witnesses of how things are changing, and they’re changing because the warm temperatures are throwing off the butterflies’ internal calendars.” –Dr. Hayhoe

50:50 Hayhoe offers that we need to build resilience and wean ourselves from fossil fuels. She expresses hopefulness tied to the Paris Climate Change Treaty.

54:32 Saenz answers Goodgame’s question about how ecotourism is effecting the roosting sites—hurting or helping?

“Tourism is very positive at overwintering sites, because there is a very severe restriction to cut trees today, because it’s a biosphere reserve in the core area, so nearly the only income alternative to cut trees is to have ecotourism.”–Dr. Saenz Romero

56:10 Saenz Romero expresses pessimism about the voluntary enforcement of the Paris Climate Treaty, as Mexico begins oil drilling in the ocean and continues to import oil from Australia.

58:44 Goodgame introduces the issue of the possible copper mine at the Monarch roosting sites in Mexico.

1:01:15 Question from the audience: Should the mastodons still be alive today?

1:03:55 Goodgame follows up: Is the issue that the butterfly will go extinct, or that it just stops migrating?

Maeckle answers with a question: why do insects migrate? For shelter, for host plant, to reproduce. And if the Monarch butterfly can have local milkweed and mates here in San Antonio or Houston or Florida, why should they migrate? Why would they migrate?

“Is it a vanity for us as human beings for us to expect this insect to make that journey so we can be marveled, so we can appreciate it? And what would the butterfly say if we could interview the butterfly?”–Maeckle

1:05:52 Downs debates the pros and cons of migratory vs. local Monarch butterfly populations. “Personally, I think it’s important and I’m all for the vanity of that.”

1:13:56 What are the impacts of pesticide use?

1:16:08 Is Tropical milkweed good or not?

1:19.08 Do the two or three milkweeds in my yard make a difference?

1:19:58 Are we preventing adaptation by interfering with nature?

1:20:54 What other species of trees are part of the forests where the Monarchs roost? What is the reforestation plan for the Oyamel forest?

1:23:00 What is the forest going to look like in 50 years? And is there a possibility that the Monarchs would roost there on other species?

1:26:46 How will climate change impact predation pressure on Monarchs?

thanks

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What will happen to pollinator advocacy under President Trump?

Monarch butterflies undertook an unusual migration this 2016 season as a series of small pulses and late season flyers moved through the Texas Funnel en route to Mexico, replacing the concentrated butterfly wave that usually makes passage in mid-late October.

late season Monarchs

Monarchs were late to the party in 2016. Sounds like an election night the country just experienced. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies were extremely late and unusually reproductive this year. Migrating butterflies do not typically reproduce. Rather, they save their energy for a spring orgy in Mexico that launches the following year’s first generation of butterflies.

As October gave way to the first day of November and the hottest temperatures in history, Monarchs continued their reproductive activities–dropping eggs, hatching caterpillars and forming chrysalises up until Election Day. Scientists, citizen scientists and casual observers all wondered: what the heck is going on?

The same question could be asked in this unprecedented election of a President. Past history and polling data proved wildly out of sync with the fact that on November 8, 2016, Americans elected Donald J. Trump their 45th president of the United States. Just like this season’s Monarch migration, that reality is generating a slew of head-scratching questions for those of us who care about butterflies.

Trump and Obama

Will Trump continue Obama’s legacy of pollinator advocacy? Photo via Donald Trump’s Facebook page

Before we speculate on what a Trump presidency might hold for pollinator advocacy, let’s recap President Barack Obama’s great work on behalf of pollinators.

In 2014, following the petition proposing listing of Monarch butterflies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, President Obama met with the president of Mexico and prime minister of Canada to discuss a Pan-American strategy for saving the iconic Monarch butterfly migration.  He and First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first-ever pollinator garden at the White House. Pres. Obama also announced the formation of a Pollinator Task Force that produced the National Pollinator Strategy in 2015. The 58-page document outlined three ambitious goals for the U.S.:

  1. Reduce Honey bee colony losses by more than 15% within 10 years.
  2. Increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population to 225 million (their historic average), with an occupation of 15 acres in Michoacán by 2020.
  3. Restore or enhance seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

The National Pollinator Strategy called for the creation of a “Monarch butterfly highway” of native plant and prairie restorations along the IH-35 corridor from Duluth, Minnesota to Laredo, Texas.  Interestingly, every state along that corridor voted for Trump except for Minnesota.

In June of 2016, Obama met again with his fellow North American leaders, los Tres Amigos, and reconfirmed the Pan-American commitment to preserving the Monarch butterfly migration.

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There’s no doubt that much of the advocacy, progress and attention to Monarch butterflies and other pollinators in the last two years has directly resulted from President Obama’s focus.  He will surely go down in history, among the growing community of committed pollinator advocates,  as “the pollinator president.”

Programs such as the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, research funding and grants focusing on milkweed habitat and prairie restoration, pollinator focused educational outreach and events through organizations like Monarch Watch, the Xerces Society and Monarch Joint Venture, and programs geared to encouraging private land owners to restore pollinator habitat on their properties in exchange for reduced property taxes have resulted from Obama’s pollinator focus.

And what will happen to these programs under a Trump Administration?

“The short answer is…it’s just too early to tell,” said Susan Kaderka, Southwest regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. “The Monarch work has been very popular—with states in the flyway, including many that went for Trump, with major cities and towns large and small. So it may be that it will continue, though I am sure USF&W is spending some money on it and it is unclear what will happen to that.”

Mayor Taylor at zoo

San Antonio’s butterfly friendly Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December 2015 and made San Antonio the first Monarch Butterfly Champion City –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly and pollinator advocates inside government and out echoed feelings of doubt and bewilderment. Most did not want their names attached to their quotes.

Several suggested that programs and initiatives might be safe for a while, as the new Trump administration focuses its attention elsewhere in the early days. A call for more reliance on private sector funding and pulling together for the long haul were common themes.

One government staffer mentioned a review of Trump’s 100-day mandate, which includes freezing all federal jobs, except positions in the military. “This will no doubt strain federal budgets indirectly or directly,” said the staffer.

Monarch expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, who helped initiate the petition to have Monarch butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, characterized his feelings this way. “Impossible to know, but I’m not optimistic,” he said. The listing is still under review and should be resolved by June 2019–year two of a Trump presidency.

President-elect Donald Trump has been characteristically vague about specifics regarding his future environmental policies, but he is regarded as a climate change denier and an advocate for freeing the domestic oil and gas industry from regulators. His website “positions” page doesn’t even include environment or climate change as a topic, but under energy, it states “Make America energy independent, create millions of new jobs, and protect clean air and clean water. We will conserve our natural habitats, reserves and resources. We will unleash an energy revolution that will bring vast new wealth to our country.”

Trump has labeled climate change a “hoax,” discussed dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, and said more than once that he’s going to “bring back coal.” He has expressed a desire to undo the Clean Power Plan, and declared he will backpedal on the Paris climate change agreement signed by President Obama and representatives from 175 other nations in April.

“The prospect that the president-elect would roll back years of Obama administration policies buoyed investors in fossil fuels companies Wednesday—while sending shares of top wind and solar power firms tumbling,” stated a November 9 Wall Street Journal story headlined “Oil, Coal Seen as Winner With Donald Trump Victory.”

Every state along the Monarch butterfly highway IH35 corridor went for Trump except for Minnesota. Courtesy graphic

Every state along the Monarch butterfly highway IH35 corridor went for Trump except for Minnesota. Courtesy graphic

Trump’s suggested Cabinet picks offer some insight.

To lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition team, Trump selected Myron Ebell, a devout climate change denier who disputes the scientific consensus around manmade impacts on global warming.

As head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to “advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty,” Ebell and his anti-science positions are well-known.

Ebell once dismissed global warming as “a fad” and rationalized it as perhaps a good thing.  He wrote in a blog post on the CEI website “Complementing the weak scientific case for alarm, many people have realized that warmer climates are more pleasant and healthier. That’s why Americans move to Phoenix or Florida when they retire. If global warming theory turns out to be correct and winters become milder, then they may not be so eager to move from Michigan or New York.”

Scientific American, characterized Ebell’s role this way: “His participation in the EPA transition team signals that the Trump team is looking to drastically reshape the climate policies the agency has pursued under the Obama administration.”

As for Secretary of the Interior, the cabinet position that oversees federal lands, wildlife and rules on endangered species listings, Trump is considering Lucas Oil cofounder Frances Lucas, according to several news reports. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., an avid big game hunter who created a stir earlier this year when photos of him with his African safari kills went viral via social media, is also being considered for the job, as is former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, known for her call to “Drill Baby Drill.”

Trump’s January 2016 interview with Field and Stream Magazine includes his references to his sons’ love for hunting and their shared belief that our national parks system, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has been badly managed and maintained:  “..One of the things they’ve complained about for years is how badly the federal lands are maintained, so we’ll get that changed,” Trump told the magazine’s Anthony Licata.

Trump also said he’s “very much into energy” and “very much into fracking and drilling,” adding that “we never want to be hostage again to OPEC and go back to where we were.” Trump told Licata that he supports energy exploration, “as long as we don’t do anything to damage the land.”

Sustainability, renewable energy, government support of research and development into habitat protections and restoration have not been part of the Trump conversation with the public. For the next two months, an information vacuum with be filled with speculation. We will have to wait until Jan. 20 to find out Trump’s intentions.

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Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at TribuneFest: “Hopelessness is hopeless”

Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of the foremost experts in the world on climate change, appeared at the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend in a one-on-one interview with Neena Satija,  the news organization’s environmental and investigative reporter.

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Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe will join us at our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium in San Antonio October 21 -Photo by Artie LImmer, Texas Tech University

Since Dr. Hayhoe will be joining us at our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival October 20 -22 as a speaker at our climate change symposium, I thought I’d sit in on the session to get a preview of what we might hear from her next month. Tickets available here.

Hayhoe did not disappoint. But first, a bit of background.

Born in Ontario, Canada, she “grew up with Monarch butterflies,” she told me after her appearance. She was raised as an evangelical Christian and climate skeptic.

butterflyfest_300x600Now, as an atmospheric scientist, Hayhoe serves as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University with a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois. She devotes herself to developing and applying climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. As a lead author for the Second and Third U.S. National Climate Assessments, she has conducted climate impact studies for a broad cross-section of organizations, cities and regions, from Boston to Texas to California.

“I am also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, where we bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders to provide relevant, state-of-the-art information on how climate change will affect our lives,” Hayhoe states on her website.

This bridge building becomes most interesting when Hayhoe taps into her identity as an evangelical Christian married to a pastor–not the typical profile of a climate change activist. She and her husband Andrew Farley, a professor of applied linguistics and best-selling author, wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, a book that untangles the complex science of climate change while tackling long-held misconceptions.

This defying of the stereotype gives Hayhoe a unique ability to talk about climate change in a way people can hear and understand.

Satija Hayhoe

Neena Satija interviews Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at the Texas Tribune Festival. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Referring to the “earth’s fever,” on Saturday at Calhoun Hall on the University of Texas at Austin campus, she pointed out how the values that drive people to do things big and small to combat client change are the same values upon which every major religion in the world are founded–taking responsibility, caring about the future our children will face, and caring for the poor, for example.

“Hopelessness as a policy is hopeless,” Hayhoe said. “Hope is what keeps us going as humans.”

She added that the poor and the vulnerable are the human populations most effected by climate change. Native Americans in Alaska and Louisiana have been displaced and are the first climate change refugees “because their land is sinking,” into the rising oceans, she said.

climate change hayhoe book

Hayhoe’s book, coauhored with her husband Dr. Andrew Farley, unravels misconceptions about climate change. Courtesy photo

But Hayhoe’s primary message was one of hope. She cited the progress and actions cities are taking across the country to fight climate change–planting more trees, reducing pavement, concrete and other impervious cover, creating green roofs to help reduce temperatures in urban heat islands.

She praised British Colombia’s carbon fee dividend program–whereby companies and individuals charge a fee for greenhouse gas emissions, which are then refunded to taxpayers as a dividend. “China’s 2015 coal emissions dropped for the first time. They have more wind and solar than anyone,” she said.

She encouraged those advocating to combat climate change to “leave the science behind” and talk about something that touches people’s hearts.

“To talk to people about climate change, don’t start with the science, talk about something that is personal to them,” said Hayhoe. “We must be able to connect where our heart is, not just where our head is.”

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Save the date: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio Oct. 20-22

Mark your calendars, butterfly and pollinator fans. San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at Pearl will take place October 20 – 22 this fall during peak Monarch butterfly migration week. Join us for three fun days of events to celebrate the majesty and magic of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.butterflyfest_wordpressThursday, Oct. 20th, 6 PM – 8 PM: Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca! at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano in HemisFair Park. FREE ADMISSION. Mexican artist Ignacio Arcas presents “Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca!,” a nature photography exhibit of Monarchs’ roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico. Arcas will be present to discuss his artwork, and Mexican forester and symposium panelist Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero from Michoacán will join us to chat with the audience about the Monarch migration.  

Silk scarves by Piñeda- Covalent. Courtesy photo.Textile designer Pineda-Covalín will present a collection of their Monarch butterfly inspired wares, and an installation by artist David J. Romero replicating the Monarch butterfly roosting sites will welcome guests to the Instituto.

Sponsored by the Instituto Cultural Mexicano and Texas Butterfly Ranch

 

Friday, October 21st, 6 PM – 8 PM: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium at the Pearl Studio. $10; LIMITED SEATING. Tickets are now on sale here.

Dan Goodgame, VP of Corporate Communications for Rackspace, will moderate a timely discussion with the distinguished panelists listed below.

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, a forester from Michoacán, Mexico, who proposes moving the Monarchs’ roosting sites higher up the mountain to save them from the impacts of climate change.

 

 

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.Catalina Trail “discovered” the Monarch roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico after years of searching as a citizen scientist. Trail, from Morelia, graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1976 as a 25-year-old mexicana. She and her then husband Kenneth Brugger led scientists to the site where the Monarchs roost, and the news rocked the butterfly world. She currently lives in Austin.
UPDATE: Catalina Trail will not be able to attend due to health matters. Monika Maeckle, founder of the Texas Butterfly Ranch, will take her place as a panelist at the symposium.

 

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Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian, climate change expert, and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She holds a Ph.D in atmospheric science and coauthored the book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions with her husband, Andrew Farley.

 

cathyCathy Downs, a conservation specialist for Monarch Watch based in Comfort, Texas, teaches hundreds of children and adults each year about the magic and science of the Monarch butterfly migration.

 

 

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Dan Goodgame, moderator, is vice-president for executive communications at Rackspace, a global leader in cloud computing. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author, Goodgame describes himself as a “recovering journalist.” He worked as a top editor at TIME and FORTUNE, a White House correspondent, and a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Europe.

 

Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch.

Saturday, October 22nd, 9 AM – 1 PM: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. FREE ADMISSION.

Join us as we honor Monarchs and other pollinators everywhere. The People for Pollinators Parade, lead by San Antonio’s Pedaling Pollinators and Earn-A-Bike Coop, kicks off the festivities at 9:30 AM with custom built bikes that resemble butterflies. COSTUMES ENCOURAGED.

Pedaling Pollinators

The EarnaBike Coop’s Pedaling Pollinators will lead the People for Pollinators Parade. Courtesy photo.

Two Monarch butterfly releases will be held at 10:30AM and 12PM. Throughout the event, butterfly docents will hold demonstrations on How and Why to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.

The Pearl Farmer’s Market will include Monarch- and pollinator-themed food and drinks, Monarch Jeopardy, native plant sales and more.

Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch

Special thanks to our sponsors and to Mayor Ivy Taylor for signing the National Wildlife Federation Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

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SPONSORSHIPS are still available. Check back here for schedules and updates.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Saenz Romero was proposing moving the forest 2,000 feet higher in elevation because climate change suggested the forest would not survive within 20 years.

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Mexico, Canada and Obama recommit to conserving Monarch butterfly migration

President Barack Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada met in Ottawa, Canada, on Wednesday and reconfirmed their commitment to preserve the Monarch butterfly migration.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada greet President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico upon arrival for the North American Leaders' Summit at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada, June 29, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, President Justin Trudeau of Canada and U.S. President Barack Obama met in Ottawa, Canada this week and talked climate change, clean energy and Monarch butterflies. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Three Amigos summit touches on climate change, terrorists and butterflies,” read the headline in the Toronto Sun.

Amidst discussions of clean energy and climate change cooperation and comments that compared Donald Trump to Hitler, the “Tres Amigos” used the Monarch butterfly migration as an example of the three countries’ inherent connectedness in a time of political isolationism.

President Peña Nieto of Mexico mentioned in remarks that Monarch butterflies “no longer need visas” and used the migrating insects as an example of globalism. “This is a species that, in its pilgrimage, we can see how our countries are intertwined,” said Peña Nieto.

President Obama called Monarchs “spectacular.”

“I love the story of the Monarch butterflies,” he said. “They’re not just any species — they are spectacular and we want to make sure that our children, our grandchildren can see them as well.”

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

President Peña Nieto of Mexico suggested the Monarch migration symbolizes how our three countries are intertwined. Photo by Veronica Prida

By the end of the day, the North American leaders had jointly issued “The North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership Action Plan.”

In a section labeled “Conserve the Monarch butterfly and its habitat,” the North American leaders committed to:

  • Continue to address habitat loss and degradation of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators.
  • Promote sufficient breeding, staging, migration, and overwintering habitat and assure it is made available domestically to support the 2020 Eastern Monarch population target represented by its occupation of six hectares of overwintering habitat in Mexico.
  • Continue collaborating through the Tri-national Monarch Science Partnership to coordinate priority research, monitoring, information sharing, and tools development.
President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! We think Monarchs are “spectacular,” too.  Courtesy photo

The NAFTA Presidents’ reunion came 26 months after they first gathered in Toluca, Mexico and agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

In the two years and four months since that declaration, much has changed.

Here in the United States, President Obama ordered up a National Pollinator Strategy upon returning from that trip. When the 58-page document was released a year later in May of 2015, it created a public focus on the plight of pollinators, the Monarch butterfly migration in particular.  Millions of dollars in research grants, educational programs and government supported initiatives began pouring into the cause of restoring pollinator habitat and educating the public, including the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, which encourages communities along the IH-35 corridor to increase pollinator habitat for Monarchs and other species.

Since the 2014 meeting, the Monarch butterfly population has climbed significantly, tripling this last season. But then climate change dealt the recovery a brutal blow with an unseasonable freeze in March, sweeping through the Oyamel forest where the butterflies roost, killing millions of the migrating butterflies and wrecking the forest “blanket” that ensures their warmth in the winter. Scientists are still assessing the damage. Some projections suggest up to 100 million butterflies were killed.

The scene at Chincua two weeks after the storm. Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

A freak snowstorm in March killed millions of Monarch butterflies this year, just as they were beginning their journey north.Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

Such uncertainty makes a continued North American cooperative effort all the more welcome.

From the Whitehouse press office:

“We reaffirm our commitment to work collaboratively to achieve our long term goal of conserving North America’s Monarch migratory phenomena and to ensure that sufficient habitat is available to support the 2020 target for the eastern Monarch population.

Read the White House press release.

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Coming soon? Grupo Mexico copper mine in heart of Monarch butterfly roosting sites

While the U.S. channels millions of dollars into research, citizen science outreach, and public education on the importance of the Monarch butterfly migration, Mexico is considering the approval of permits that would allow its largest mining company with the country’s worst environmental record to reopen a copper mine in the heart of the Monarchs’ ancestral roosting sites.

Roosting sites

What will happen to the roosting sites if copper mining returns to Angangueo?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Grupo Mexico, which trades on the Mexican Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol GMEXICOB and has a market cap of $317 billion, claims that a mine it operated until 1992 in Angangueo, Michoacán, technically never closed, and thus should be allowed to reopen, despite protections put in place for the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The reserve was inscribed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2008.

Grupo Mexico touts itself on the company’s website as a “leader in low-cost production” and has a deserved reputation for lax ecological controls.  The company was responsible for the worst mining accident in Mexican history.

In August of 2014, the holding company’s Buenavista copper mine in Sonora released 10 million gallons of copper sulfate acid and other heavy metals into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers, contaminating the water supply of 24,000 people along the U.S. border with Arizona. Mexico’s Minister of Environment Juan José Guerra called the incident the “worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico.” Grupo Mexico attributed the accident to heavy rains.

Grupo Mexico

Grupo Mexico touts its low cost leadership on its website. Graphic via gmexico.com the worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico,” said Grupo Mexico blamed the accident on heavy rains.

The accident was so severe that for the first time in Mexican history, PROFEPA, the country’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, was forced by community outrage to file a legal complaint against the mining company, holding it financially responsible for the clean-up. Grupo Mexico was forced to create a $150 million trust to address the environmental impacts.

A September 2014 dispatch in El Financiero, Mexico’s leading business and financial news daily, cited a report from a special Mexican Congressional investigation into the Buenavista incident. The conclusion: “Grupo Mexico and its affiliate Buenavista del Cobre mine, far from being a socially responsible enterprise respectful of the environment and in solidarity with the local population, have put at risk human life, the environment and the economic development of the region.”

The above catastrophe wasn’t the only time Grupo Mexico unleashed a mining disaster. Back in 2006, an explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila killed 65 miners. After striking 14 times because of methane leaks and generally unsafe working conditions, the unionized miners were blown to bits in the blast. In addition to the significant loss of life, serious environmental impacts resulted–air and water pollution, soil contamination, erosion, deforestation and more.

This incident, along with the Buenavista disaster and a corporate history of union busting and low-cost mining, have earned Grupo Mexico a reputation as “one of the country’s most irresponsible mining companies,” according to the Transborder Project in Washington, DC.

Copper mining at the Monarch roosting sites?

Will copper mining come to the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico? Photo by Carol Stoker, NASA, Wikipedia

The turn of events is literally unbelievable given that a little over two years ago Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto stood with President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and pledged to support the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration.

In February 2014, shortly after scientists announced the Monarch butterfly population had dropped precipitously to historic lows of about 35 million butterflies from highs of 450 million in years’ past, the three heads of state gathered in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the roosting sites. With great fanfare, los trés amigos” committed to do what they could to save the Monarch butterfly migration.

“We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the Monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” President Enrique Peńa Nieto said at the end of the summit. The leaders agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

tresamigos

President Barack Obama President Enrique Pen–a Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to help save the Monarch butterfly migration back in 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

So, how does allowing a company with one of the worst environmental records in Mexican history to reopen a copper mine in the heart of the Monarch Butterfly Biopreserve move us toward that goal?

“In México, in governmental affairs linked to big companies, corruption has no limits,” said one Mexican scientist, who, like several Mexican residents interviewed, asked to remain nameless for fear of reprisals.  Another source said he would like to speak out, but wouldn’t because he had neither the “stature nor protection” to do so.

The move by Grupo Mexico to reopen the mine has been underway for years, but came into U.S. focus most recently when Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin addressed the subject in a thoughtful April 29 New York Times opinion piece headlined “A Mine vs. a Million Monarchs.”  The article lays out the complex issues facing the community of Angangueo as they struggle for economic stability building a nascent ecotourism economy in the middle of the Mexican mountains.

Fagin’s piece was shared profusely on the DPLEX list, an email listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados, from academics to novices, as well as other online outlets. The exposure provoked a petition by the Endangered Species Coalition, Tell the Mexican Government to Reject Mining in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. 

Sign the petition today.

Click on the link and sign the petition today.

“It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that tags thousands of migrating Monarch butterflies each fall, by phone this week. He added that he’d heard that many in the Mexican government oppose the mine.

“There are lots of declarations by people who say that they’re not going to let certain things happen– and then they do happen.”  Taylor encouraged a united front in opposition to the reopening of the mine.

Grupo Mexico did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Sign the petition here.
 

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At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies perish in deadly ice storm in Michoacán

At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies were hit with a deadly freeze this weekend as an unusual ice and wind storm moved through the mountains of Michoacán where the butterflies roost for the winter.   The storm hit just as the spring migration was beginning.   Luckily, many butterflies exited the mountains before the freeze arrived.

Frozen monarch butterflies

Preliminary estimates suggest 1.5 million Monarch butterflies froze to death in the recent ice storm in Michoacán. Photo via Monarca via  Facebook

Exactly how many butterflies perished in the freeze remains uncertain. An Associated Press report sounded upbeat, with Mexican authorities stating that “Monarch butterflies that winter in the mountains west of Mexico City survived the severe cold snap that hit the area this week.”

But the Mexican news agency El Universal on Saturday quoted Homero Gómez González, president of the administrative council that oversees the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, as saying that 1.5 Monarch butterflies froze to death–about 3% of the estimated 50 million roosting.

According to Gomez Gonazaléz, the recent freeze registered temperatures of -12 degrees Celsius (about 10 Fahrenheit). Other reports had winds raging up to 50 miles per hour, leaving 13 inches of snow on the ground in some areas and taking out dozens of trees.  Those living in the area were without electricity for days and hundreds of lamb and sheep were lost.

“Historic snowfall at the El Rosario sanctuary,” read the headline of the el Rosario Facebook page on Thursday, March 10. “The Monarch butterfly suffers wind, snow, rain and sleet.” The post was accompanied by photos showing several inches of snow on the ground.

The news whipsawed those who follow Monarch butterfly news.  Monarch fans had been celebrating the much-anticipated announcement in February that the population of the migrating orange-and-black insects had tripled since last year.  Reports of the devastating freeze underscored the brutal reminder that Mother Nature is in charge.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of citizen science group Monarch Watch, which tags the butterflies during their fall migration, weighed in from Kansas.

“Information is still sketchy about the degree of butterfly mortality,” Dr. Taylor told the  DPLEX list, an email listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados.

Dozens of trees were lost in the storm.

Dozens of trees were also lost in the storm. Photo by Homero Gómez Gonzalez via Facebook.

“Most claims, observations and images suggest that mortality is low to moderate,” said Dr. Taylor.  “There is no evidence to date to indicate levels of catastrophic mortality (70-80%) that followed the winter storms of 2002 and 2004.” he said, adding that it will take at least a week to get more accurate information on the number of butterflies lost.

Taylor also reminded readers that “a significant portion of the population had already left” the roosting sites prior to the storm.

Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs his entire life and is one of a group who submitted a petition to have the butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, seemed less optimistic.

“The current statements that the Monarchs have survived the storm are premature,” wrote Dr. Brower via email in response to the Associated Press story.  “I fear that optimistic assumptions are driving the news reports.”

Like Dr. Taylor, Brower cautioned that time will tell the accurate mortality counts.

“Based on our study of the 2002 storm, the butterflies that are killed or irreversibly damaged keep falling out of their clusters for days after the freezing event. Mortality counts need to be made at least a week after the storm.”

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2014 Monarch Butterfly Migration: Worst in History or a Hopeful Rebound?

Moth week is behind us and next up on the pollinator calendar is the Monarch butterfly migration. The storied insects start moving south on their 3,000-mile fall migration from Canada to Mexico around August 15th.

This year started with only 33 million Monarchs leaving the Oyamel forests of Michoacán in March–that’s the lowest count in history, down from more than one billion in 1994. It’s no surprise that Monarch watchers are on the edge of their seats, wondering if the majestic orange-and-black butterflies will rebound.

I saw my first-of-season (FOS) Monarch since the spring migration on Sunday, July 20, enroute to help our son Alex Rivard move into his first home. As I  crossed the driveway to my car, I noticed a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my front yard pollinator garden in downtown San Antonio.

There she was, tucking her abdomen to reach the underside of milkweed leaves, laying dozens of eggs in the process.  See the video above. I collected 34 eggs, took them inside for fostering, and left about that many on the plant.  Days later, little round “chew marks” on the garden’s milkweed plants proved that the eggs had hatched, but not a caterpillar was in sight.  Wasps, ants, spiders, ladybugs, a bird–who knows what got them?  Nature is brutal.

Still, I couldn’t help associate the FOS, egg-laying Monarch with the “new beginning” of our son’s arrival as a mortgage-paying, first-time homeowner. Alex will get a chrysalis as a housewarming gift.  And I am feeling hopeful about the 2014 migration.

Texas Drought, July 2014

Better rains, less drought translates to more welcoming conditions for Monarch butterfly migration. Map by U.S. Drought Monitor

So is Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. He told us via email that he suspects a modest increase in monarch numbers.

“I’m not ready to say what ‘modest’ means in terms of hectares but all the indications remain positive. Monarch production from the upper midwest from the eastern Dakotas through Wisconsin and parts of southern Missouri will be above that of last year–areas to the east will be low again but not quite as low as last year.”

In June, Taylor pointed out that the harsh winter we experienced after three dry summers has driven down the predator population, increasing the survival rate of Monarch caterpillars in the central breeding grounds.   “Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.”

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, a website that tracks the Monarch migration. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, agrees. “Yes, I do think this fall’s migration will be larger than last year’s,” she told us via email.  “However, considering how dismal last year’s migration was, that isn’t saying a whole lot.”

Journey North taps citizen scientists across the hemisphere to collect data about Monarch sightings and posts the info on a handy map so you can track the migration from your desk (see above).   They also provide weekly reports summing up the state of the migration and Monarchs’ move through the hemisphere, like this one:

“There are hopeful signs of successful reproduction from the Upper Midwest and across much of Ontario. People are reporting up to a half-dozen monarchs at a time, and more eggs and larvae than all of last year.”

“Hopeful signs of reproduction.”  Yes, we like the sound of that. Because if we can just get a slew of Monarchs produced in the midsection of the country they can start their trip to Mexico through the Texas Funnel and this year we can offer a much more welcoming reception than we’ve been able to provide in the recent past.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Yes, please.  More Monarch caterpillars mean more migrating Monarch butterflies.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the drought continues, we’ve had a relatively mild summer, with few days over 100 degrees.  Sporadic rains–more than 10 inches at the ranch just in July–have fueled the growth of late summer flowers.  Nectar plants await our favorite migrants: Frostweed, Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), and Goldenrod stand at the ready, about to bust out their blossoms for a full-on nectar party.  Send some Monarchs our way, please, and we’ll make sure they’re well fueled for the rest of their journey.

In the meantime, it’s not too early to order your tags from Monarch Watch.  Tagging season begins soon. Related posts:

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