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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New study: nectar plants more important than milkweed for Monarch butterfly migration

A research paper published April 27 in the journal Oikos is causing a stir in the Monarch butterfly world.  The paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the major cause of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration is a lack of milkweed tied to the increased adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in the butterflies’ midwestern breeding grounds.

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Migrating Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed in the Texas Hill Country, October, 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Anurag Agrawal and his team of researchers at Cornell University tackle this widely held assumption in their recent paper, “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.”  Agrawal suggests that the emphasis on milkweed may be misplaced and that solutions addressing habitat fragmentation, and most interesting and relevant to Texas, late season nectar plants should receive more attention.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase their population or save them from some demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video titled “Beyond milkweed:  Monarchs face habitat, nectar threats.” The video, below, was released in conjunction with the paper.

“Milkweed is probably not the limiting thing for the Monarch population,” he said.  “Perhaps planting milkweed will not improve or increase the populations as much as we thought in the past.”

Calling the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very very gnarly problem,”  Agrawal gave kudos to citizen scientists for their involvement in the study and said more than once that  we must “get the science right.”

“We must identify the key weak points. It is absolutely critical.  If we don’t, we could be investing a lot of effort into conserving a portion of the migration but it may have ultimately no impact conserving the species overall,” he said.

Agrawal and his team matched Monarch butterfly counts made by citizen scientists and others to the different stages of the migration.   After doing so, they found that counts were not down until the end of the migratory cycle, when the butterflies started heading south.

“By the time they get to Mexico, their numbers are plummeting,” said Agrawal, “but at the end of the summer, when they start that migration, their numbers are not down.”

The research underscores the different needs of the species at the different stages of their life cycle.

In early spring, as Monarchs move north through the Texas funnel, they need milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.  They continue to need milkweed through the summer as subsequent generations reproduce as they move north.

But in the fall when the Monarchs are heading south, they don’t need milkweed since they enter their reproductive diapause–that is, a temporary stage in which they postpone sexual activities and save their energy to migrate to Mexico.  At this point, they need water, ample nectar sources, trees or other protection at night for roosting, and connected habitats.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

It’s not just about the milkweed.  Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed in downtown San Antonio, September 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal’s point is well taken.  Immense focus has been devoted on increasing the Monarch butterfly host plant, milkweed.  Milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family, is necessary in the early stages of the migration when the Monarchs are reproductive.  But what about later in the game, when Monarchs are NOT reproductive?  They require nectar to fuel their flight.  Agrawal and his colleagues suggest that late season nectar plants and perhaps interconnected habitats–ie, pollinator corridors–would make their continuous route south more doable.

University of Georgia ecologist Dr. Andy Davis made a similar point last year when he spoke to the Washington Post. Davis challenged the idea of basing the Monarch butterfly population census on counting the number of hectares in Mexico occupied by the migrating creatures each winter.

Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed

Monarchs caterpillars eat only milkweed, but Monarch butterflies will nectar indiscriminately. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“If you were charged with figuring out how many people are participating in the Boston Marathon each year, you wouldn’t count the number of people who cross the finish line,” said Davis.  “For many years we’ve been counting the finishing Monarchs in Mexico….We’ve been doing it backwards.”

What Dr. Agrawal says about nectar plants makes sense, especially for Texas.

Think about it:  as Monarchs migrate south in the fall through the Texas funnel, they are  not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter.  There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

Monarch on duranta

Monarch nectaring on Duranta at Texas Butterfly Ranch urban butterfly garden, downtown San Antonio, November 2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That suggests that in the fall in Texas, there really is no need for milkweed for migratory Monarchs.  In fact, one could argue (and many scientists have) that having milkweed available late in the season will encourage Monarchs to break their diapause and reproduce, thus never arriving in Mexico.  This also suggests what Monarchs DO need in the fall: late season nectar sources.

The point is important and timely, given that millions of dollars in conservation funding and grants are being awarded as we speak. Should those grants and initiatives be focused on cultivating more milkweed or developing more sources and locations for late season nectar plants?

In much of Texas, called “the most important state” to the migration by Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and others, the fall garden trumps the abbreviated spring garden season.  Temperatures climb into triple digits so early here that it’s challenging to grow many fruits, vegetables and flowers until the fall when things cool off.  In such a context, and given the timing of the Monarchs arrival here in the fall, late season perennial blooming plants should be encouraged.   We are well-suited to provide them.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, awaits on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Need ideas?  Try Goldenrod, Frostweed, Autumn sage, Late flowering boneset, Asters, Cowpen daisy in your fall garden if you want to help Monarchs.  In my downtown San Antonio butterfly garden last year, Duranta, sometimes called Brazilian skyflower, was a big draw for Monarchs and other pollinators.  It’s not native, but a well adapted flowering bush–and highly appropriate, fantastic plant.

Monarch Watch offers this super useful list of appropriate nectar plants by season. The Xerces Society also has a guide for useful pollinator friendly plants.  And the Pollinator Partnership offers plant guides for every region in the country.

Scientists will continue this debate.  Dr. Chip Taylor recently took Dr. Agrawal’s paper to task in a rebuttal paper, “Conclusion of No Decline in Summer Monarch Population Not Supported” and Dr. Davis rebutted the rebuttal on his highly educational Monarch science blog.

Meanwhile, those of us in Texas should plan and plant late season bloomers.  Doing so will offer the bonus of providing fuel and sustenance not only for Monarchs but other pollinators.

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And the winner of the Fiesta 2016 butterfly medal contest is…

Voting started slowly, but built to a crescendo of more than 400 likes, comments, tweets and clicks on behalf of your favorite Fiesta 2016 butterfly medal.

And the winner is…. SAWS, San Antonio Water System, the city’s public water utility.

Our local water saving warriors and sole suppliers of San Antonio’s H2O took first place in the Texas Butterfly Ranch poll to choose the BEST 2016 butterfly-themed Fiesta medal, garnering 229 of 440 votes cast.

The completely unscientific poll launched last Thursday. Votes were tallied from website and social media clicks, shares and comments.

SAWS Puente butterfly medal

Lookin’ good! SAWS CEO Robert Puente shows off the utility’s Fiesta butterfly medal which won first place in our Best Fiesta 2016 butterfly medal competition.  Congratulations, SAWS!  Photo courtesy SAWS

In addition to hundreds of clicks and shares, the SAWS medal spawned more than 60 online comments. Several voters pointed out that the medal was the only one to include a caterpillar as well as flowers, thus better portraying the entire life cycle and the synergies that bind us.

WINNER: SAWS 2016 Fiesta medal

WINNER: SAWS 2016 Fiesta medal

“When I see the (SAWS) medal it makes me think of change, strength, and rebirth,” wrote Rachel Garza Carreon, who voted for the winner. “The caterpillar has to hope that as it changes into a butterfly it will work. There is always a danger of outside predators, etc. It is a journey we can all relate to. Change is scary, but you can come through it stronger than ever.”

That holistic reaction was exactly the desired effect, said Dana Nichols, SAWS Conservation Manager of Outdoor Programs, who helped design the medal. “We thought it was important to get the details right so we included the caterpillar and even the native Antelope horns milkweed,” said  Nichols.  “As with all of our GardenStyleSA.com information, we wanted our medal to be accurate, relevant, as well as remind us all of what it takes to see Monarchs in our area.”

 

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The San Antonio River Authority, SARA, took second place. SARA’s medal featured a dramatic black ribbon, the Monarch’s orange-and-black color palette, with a butterfly and the SARA logo in the middle.

Voters had strong feelings about this medal, too. It generated dozens of comments like this one from Marilyn Rauch Cavicchia on Facebook: “I love this one so much. Simple and cool–and really makes the Monarch the star of the show.”

SARA spokesman Steven Schauer thanked all those who voted for SARA and congratulated SAWS for taking first place. “The real winner of this fun Fiesta medal competition is the Monarch butterfly and other pollinator species,” said Schauer.

CPS Energy‘s fancy gold Mariposa medal came in third, benefitting the Green Spaces Alliance, and the medal issued by Mayor Ivy Taylor, who is largely responsible for San Antonio’s newfound butterfly fixation, came in fourth.

Mayor Taylor at zoo

San Antonio’s butterfly friendly Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December 2015.  Here, she releases a butterfly at the San Antonio Zoo’s Monarch Fest in March. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

The recent butterfly fascination can be attributed to raised awareness of pollinator decline, Monarch butterflies in particular.  The iconic insects’ unique, captivating Pan American migration faces increasing obstacles as climate change, habitat destruction, abuse of pesticides and genetically modified crops challenge its future.

The bee collapse has also raised awareness of our insect friends’ huge contribution to making one of every three bites of food we eat possible. President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, issued in May 2015, has galvanized grass-roots advocacy in the last year, focusing grant monies and other funding to address threats to pollinators.

At the local level, our butterfly-friendly Mayor, who signed the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, deserves much credit for making San Antonio the first and to date, ONLY Monarch Champion city in the country by agreeing to execute all 24 NWF’s recommended action items to increase pollinator habitat.  Ever since, our city has gone a little butterfly crazy.  Every department of the City has been tasked with doing something about pollinator decline–thus the crop of butterfly medals.  That’s good news in our book.

Choices choices. Which is your favorite? Vote below. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Choices choices. More than 400 butterfly fans and medal maniacs voted in our Butterfly Fiesta Medal contest. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Despite coming in last place, Mayor Taylor was gracious, congratulating SAWS for winning and the other butterfly medal issuers for promoting Monarch and pollinator awareness.

“Since signing the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, it’s been such a pleasure watching the awareness and love of Monarchs spread,” said Mayor Taylor. “San Antonio is definitely doing its part to protect our state insect.”

Children Bereavement Center's Fiesta 2016 medal --courtesy photo

Children Bereavement Center’s Fiesta 2016 medal –courtesy photo

Worth noting: butterfly Fiesta medals are not just for government entities. We learned from contest voters that at least two other butterfly medals were issued this year.

leonvalleybutterflymedal

Leon Valley issued one with two colorful butterflies dancing above a Fiesta wreath and their tagline “deep roots, big ideas.” The Children’s Bereavement Center also issued a butterfly medal.

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Viva Fiesta! Vote for your favorite Fiesta San Antonio butterfly medal

Few traditions define San Antonio more than the city’s annual Fiesta celebration. The iconic San Antonio party, Fiesta started in 1891 when a group of lady conservationists organized a single parade with horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and a “battle of flowers” whereby they pelted each other with petals to salute the heroes of the Alamo.

Now, 125 years later, the 10-day celebration includes at least five parades and hundreds of other events over two weekends that generate millions in economic support for local nonprofit organizations as well as a springtime boost to the local economy.  Just like butterflies, Fiesta has evolved.

Kings Party medals

Check out those medals!  San Antonio LOVES its Fiesta medals.  This year, four medals feature butterflies.  Please vote for your favorite, below.  Photo courtesy Rivard Report

One of Fiesta’s most beloved traditions is the sharing and exchange of Fiesta medals.  Each year, businesses, nonprofits and government entities create a Fiesta medal to commemorate that year’s Fiesta.  Some folks collect the keepsake trinkets, stashing them in jewelry boxes and display cases and/or wearing heavy medaled (literally) sashes decorated with the medaled pins.  Several Facebook pages are devoted to the Fiesta medal fascination.

This year, at least four entities have issued Monarch butterfly and mariposa-themed medals. Why?

Because in December, Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Mayor’s Monarch Pledge making San Antonio the first and to date, ONLY Monarch Champion city in the country by agreeing to execute all 24 recommendations on the NWF’s action item list.  Ever since, our city has gone a little butterfly crazy.   And that’s a good thing.

Choices choices. Which is your favorite? Vote below. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Choices choices. Which is your favorite? Vote below. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As a result, the Mayor, the San Antonio River Authority, SAWS (San Antonio Water System, the local public water utility) and CPS Energy (the community owned electric and gas utility) all issued 2016 Fiesta medals with butterfly themes.

I’m having a hard time deciding which one is my favorite.  You?

Below are the medals in the order in which I received them, with descriptions.  Please take a look, and after reviewing, vote for your favorite at the end of this post.  Comments welcome.  We’ll share the winner via social media.

1.  Mayor Ivy Taylor’s Fiesta Medal

Mayor Ivy Taylor's Monarch Champion medal

Mayor Ivy Taylor’s 2016 Fiesta medal–Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mayor Taylor graciously handed out these medals to all the volunteers at the San Antonio Zoo’s first annual Monarch butterfly Festival in March.  The medal hangs from a happy aquamarine ribbon and shows the San Antonio skyline hovering over the Mayor’s name.  Below, a Monarch butterfly with wings open rests above the words “Monarch Champion City.”

2.  San Antonio River Authority 2016 Fiesta Medal

The San Antonio River Authority's Fiesta medal

San Antonio River Authority’s 2016 Fiesta medal –Photo by Monika Maeckle

The San Antonio River Authority, a local agency known as SARA, oversees the San Antonio River watershed and the lauded nine-mile riparian restoration known as The Mission Reach.  SARA  issued this Monarch butterfly themed medal, using the Monarch’s iconic orange-and-black color palette with the SARA logo in the center.  The medal hangs from a dramatic black ribbon.

It’s worth noting that SARA also took the Mayor’s Monarch pledge and has planted a LOT of native milkweed and nectar plants along the Mission Reach that moves south from downtown San Antonio, connecting our historic Missions, recently named collectively a world heritage site.  SARA has also maintained a Tropical milkweed patch for years on the San Antonio River Museum Reach north of downtown near the historic Pearl.  The site has become a year-round Monarch butterfly hangout in years that we don’t get a freeze.  The medal reinforces our city’s–and SARA’s–status as a Monarch champion.

3.  CPS Energy’s 2016 Fiesta medal

CPS Energy's 2016 Fiesta medal

CPS Energy’s 2016 Fiesta medal –Photo by Monika Maeckle

CPS Energy, San Antonio’s community owned electric and gas utility, was already planning this colorful addition to the butterfly medal roster when it staged a pollinator patch and pathway at the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas Annual Cookie Rally and Tailgate in January.  The butterfly theme was a great way to tie in their commitment to renewable energy and sustainability.

The medal sports a showy gold lapel-pin topper emblazoned with “CPS Energy” in bold black letters.  A multi-colored ribbon holds a medal on seeded wildflower paper, showing a generic mariposa–the Spanish word for butterfly–lilting above an orange-and-yellow flower.  Hmm, is that milkweed?  Not sure.  NOTE:  I work as a contract communications consultant for CPS Energy.

4.  San Antonio Water System 2016 Fiesta medal

SAWS 2016 Fiesta medal

SAWS 2016 Fiesta medal   –Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Water System, known locally as SAWS, launched an uber relevant and user-friendly website last year called GardenStyleSA.com.  The website aims to encourage locals to landscape more appropriately in a world of dramatic climate change and a community with no surface water resources.  Native plant advice, rebates for removing water-guzzling grass–even guidance on pets and plants are included in the educational online resource.

The SAWS medal hangs from a bright aqua ribbon and not only includes a Monarch butterfly, but a fifth instar Monarch caterpillar who appears ready to bust his stripes.  The butterfly floats above a variety of flowers and below the SAWS logo and the name of the landscaping website, GardenStyleSA.

“The message is not subtle,” says Karen Guz, director of conservation for SAWS. “If you want Monarch butterflies, help the caterpillars by planting and sustaining the native milkweed plants.”

Amen, sister.   And Viva Fiesta!

Don’t forget to vote, below.  Just click on your pick, and we’ll share the results.

1.  Mayor Ivy Taylor’s 2016 Fiesta medal

2.  San Antonio River Authority’s 2016 Fiesta medal

3.  CPS Energy’s 2016 Fiesta medal

4.  San Antonio Water System 2016 Fiesta medal

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Scientists try to assess Monarch butterfly mortality after Mexican freeze

Scientists have been scrambling  to assess the mortality of the roosting Monarch butterfly population in Michoacán, Mexico, following a freak March 11 winter snowstorm that dropped temperatures to sub freezing and included wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour in the butterflies’ ancestral roosting sites.  For now, the estimates of how much of the migrating Monarch butterfly population perished are at best an educated guess.

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

The scene at Chincua the day after the storm.   Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

 

“I have no new information. We are ‘in limbo,’” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science organization based at the University of Kansas that tags the butterflies each fall to track their migration.

Dr. Lincoln Brower has been working long distance from his home in Sweet Briar, Virginia, with a team of scientists on the ground in the 10,000-foot-tall plus mountains northwest of Mexico City where the butterflies roost each fall.  They’ve been gathering data, reviewing climatology information, making observations, and reviewing photos and historical accounts of a previous freeze in 2002.

“It’s been difficult and there are conflicting reports as you know,” said Dr. Brower via email, referring to Mexican tourism officials downplaying the severity of the situation. Soon after news of the storm broke, Mexican officials claimed that only 3% of the butterflies had been affected–about 1.5 million of the estimated 200 million roosting.

“The climate data we have suggest about 50% mortality in Chincua but observations suggest that Rosario was hit harder,” said Brower, referring to the El Rosario sanctuary, the preserve most often visited by tourists. The 50% number would mean 100 million butterflies took the hit–which still leaves us up over last year, just a disappointing and devastating turn of events, if true.

El Rosario Preserve in Michoacán. Photo by Monika Maeckle

El Rosario Preserve in Michoacán. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Cuatémoc Sáenz Romero, a forester who studies the Oyamel forest and is promoting an initiative to move it higher in elevation to save it from climate change, thus guaranteeing the Monarchs a future winter roost, said he visited the sanctuaries two weeks after the storm. “Except for some trees fallen, I did not see dramatic damages,” he said.

Many of us are wondering how many of the butterflies had already left the colony when the storm hit on March 11.  Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs bust off the Oyamel trees in response to warmer temperatures and begin their journey north.  We start to see them moving into South Texas as they search for milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs in the multi-generation migration. Some Monarchs have definitely made it to San Antonio and South Texas as we are witnessing and hearing about first-of-season sightings and finding eggs on local milkweeds.

monarch eggs on milkweed

Who’s got Monarch eggs? We do in San Antonio. At least SOME Monarchs escaped the storm. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The question of how many Monarchs departed before the storm hit may be rhetorical, according to one scientist.

“Perhaps that doesn’t even matter given how widespread this storm was,” said Monarch and migration scholar Dr. Tyler Flockhart of the University of Guelph in Ontario.  Flockhart said that according to weather data, the winds were so strong that temperatures inside and outside the forest were pretty much the same, suggesting the “butterflies would have been exposed to very cold temperatures.”

Scientists consider the forest canopy as an insulation blanket.  As climate change and illegal logging conspire to undermine the forest in the roosting preserves, the unique ecosystem of moisture, temperature and protection from the elements becomes threatened.   Several scientists expressed more concern about the huge trees that had been taken by the storm than the mortality of the butterflies, since it will be extremely challenging to recreate the forest canopy in the short-term.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership and released in the journal Scientific Reports March 21 found that the Monarch migration has an 11 to 57 percent chance of facing “quasi-extinction” in the next 20 years.

Dr. John Pleasants, an Iowa State University researcher who participated in the study, defined quasi-extinction to mean that not enough individual Monarch butterflies would exist to continue their migratory patterns.  The migration would collapse and the population would likely not recover.  That doesn’t mean there will no longer be Monarch butterflies;  it does suggest the phenomenon of the unique Monarch butterfly migration would cease to exist if the population falls to even more perilous levels.

We should have more definitive information in the next few weeks as the scientists review the collected data.  Stay tuned and keep those fingers crossed.

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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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San Antonio Zoo to stage three-day Monarch Fest March 4-6

Area butterfly buffs will have a unique opportunity to see exotic butterflies up close and personal while learning about the Monarch butterfly migration at the San Antonio Zoo’s

Laurie Brown Paper Kite

Hello, beautiful! Laurie Brown welcomes a Paper Kite butterfly to the San Antonio Zoo flight house for the Monarch Fest next week. Photo by Monika Maeckle

first Monarch Fest March 4 – 6. The inaugural event celebrates San Antonio’s recent national status as the first and only Monarch Champion City, so designated by the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge program.

monarchchamplogoLaurie Brown, Zoo volunteer services manager, along with Zoo staff and volunteers, have been preparing for the event for months.   On the agenda for the 72-hour celebration: a native plant sale and seed giveaway, kid-friendly crafts and educational activities, and booths/displays by more than a dozen local pollinator advocacy organizations.  The event is free with zoo admission.  MonarchFestLogo400x287-021616021503

But for an extra $1.50, visitors can also stroll through the Zoo’s butterfly house, an experience well worth the cost. Proceeds go 100% to conservation and education efforts, says Brown.

Inside the flight house, hundreds of exotic flyers like the Malabar Tree nymph,  Idea malabaricaalso known as the Paper Kite,  will be on display in a natural, garden like setting. The wings of this gorgeous black-and-white butterfly, native to India and Southeast Asia, resemble rice paper with a Monarch-like painted glass pattern.

Interestingly, the Paper Kite’s host plant, Apocynaceae, belongs to the same plant family as the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–Asclepias (milkweeds).  Both are members of the dogbane family.  Is it a coincidence that the lovely wing pattern on these two butterflies from opposite sides of the world are similar?

Paper Kite

Excitable boy. Brown says Paper Kite butterflies are “sassy” and often land on visitors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Not really, says Brown.  The Paper Kite and Monarch are distant relatives.

Also scheduled for appearances in the flight house:  the Common banded Peacock,   Papilio crino, sometimes called a Buddhist Heart, sports fluorescent wings can suggest blue or green, depending on the angle from which it is viewed.

Common banded peacock

The wings of the Common banded peacock can hint green or blue, depending on the light reflecting on them. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Brown promises a couple dozen other exotics, a mix of local butterflies and a handful of amazing Atlas Moths, Atacus atlas, one of the most dramatic looking Lepidoptera.   If you’ve never seen one of these impressive moths up close, you’re in for a treat.

Atlas moth

The San Antonio Zoo will offer a chance to see the Atlas moth up close at Monarch Fest next week. Photo via Wikipedia Dr. Raju Kasamb

These Saturnid moths rank as one of the 10 largest insects in the world and hail from Southeast Asia.  Their wingspans can reach 12 inches and in Taiwan, empty Atlas moth cocoons, spun from sturdy Fagara silk, are used as purses.

“Some vacated cocoons don’t need to be deconstructed—they can be used ‘as found’ as small pocket-change purses by simply installing a zipper,” according to the educational magazine Mental Floss.

Hmm.  New handbag trend?

Advance tickets are available online or you can buy them upon arrival.   Hope to see you there!

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Commercial butterfly breeders: industry has vested interest in raising OE-free butterflies

NOTE:  The following guest post by Dr. Barbara Dorf* arrived as a lengthy comment here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week.  I invited Dorf to expand her comment to a full-blown post because I think the perspective of professional breeders is important to various issues discussed here.

–Monika Maeckle

As a board member of the Association for Butterflies, an organization for about 80 professional and hobbyist butterfly breeders and a co-owner of Big Tree Butterflies  commercial butterfly breeding farm,  I am writing today to clarify our position in relation to the proposed petition to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the Monarch butterfly as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal, owners of Big Tree Butterfly Farm in Rockport, Texas --Courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal and Dr. Barbara Dorf, owners of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas –Courtesy photo

As stated in a recent post on this website, Lawsuit seeks ESA monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders, the petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  Such comments oversimplify the butterfly industry and misrepresent the efforts of many breeders who are very diligent and dedicated to raising healthy butterflies.

Butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and part of the larger issue of raising healthy butterflies in captivity. Our concern is at several levels.

We want to raise healthy butterflies and provide customers with the best value for their money. In addition, butterflies are living creatures and proper animal care practices need to be observed. Failure to adopt clean rearing procedures is costly and ultimately self-destructive. That said, there are areas of concern.

Ophyryocystis elecktroscirrha, or OE, has been studied extensively and is of particular concern because it can significantly impact Monarch populations. It is the most commonly mentioned disease problem in both the butterfly industry and popular press. OE occurs in nature, primarily infecting Monarchs and related butterflies. It is found in Monarch butterfly populations throughout the world, including North and South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Australia.

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. PHoto courtesy AFB

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. Photo by Dr. Tracy Villareal

OE can be transmitted in two ways. In nature and during captive breeding, spores are transmitted from egg-laying females to their offspring when dormant spores on the female’s body scales are scattered on eggs or as they are passed onto milkweed leaves that are the Monarch’s only host plant. Newly emerged caterpillars consume spores when they eat their eggshell or when feeding on milkweed leaves. Spores can also be spread between adults through body contact, more likely to occur during captive breeding when adults are kept in higher concentrations than in the wild.

Once eaten, the spores have a rather complicated life cycle, with the end result being many more spores, which are often visible inside the chrysalis. When the butterfly emerges spores are located mostly on the abdomen.

OE can be debilitating, often killing or deforming caterpillars, chrysalises and adults. Infected adults have been shown to be smaller, have shorter lives, and mate and migrate less successfully. However, those that do mate can continue to lay eggs, passing on the OE spores to the next generation, both in nature and in captivity.

deformed Monarch OE

OE infected Monarchs can have trouble emerging from the chrysalis and may be deformed. Photo via UGA Monarch parasites website

If not controlled, all butterflies within a captive breeding colony will become infected with OE in very few generations, resulting in poor quality butterflies unable to successfully breed or migrate when released. This is a butterfly breeder’s worst nightmare.

Thus, the butterfly industry has a vested interest in producing OE-free butterflies and educating all breeders on how to produce healthy butterflies. The problem is not that all butterfly breeders raise and sell OE-contaminated Monarch butterflies. Rather, the problem is that customers cannot tell if the butterfly breeder they are purchasing from raises OE-free butterflies.

The AFB has been implementing programs over the last 10 years and has been anything but lethargic concerning OE in commercially raised butterflies.

Here is what the AFB is doing to address the problem:

1. Educational programs

The AFB offers educational programs developed by butterfly professionals and academic researchers available to anyone who wants to learn more about butterfly disease prevention.

Our annual “Disease Prevention in Lepidoptera” course (offered for the last 10 years!) is free to all members and has been taken by hundreds of professional breeders, hobbyists, enthusiasts and educators, and offers a Disease Seal and certification for participants who successfully complete weekly testing and a final exam.

2. Disease screening co-op

In addition to education, the AFB also offers its members a 3rd-party Disease Screening Co-op in conjunction with the Mississippi State Pathology Department.  Caterpillars are screened by pathologists for viruses, bacteria and parasites, helping breeders to detect issues in breeding butterflies before disease can cause serious issues.

3. OE Clean Screen Program

The AFB has initiated the OE Clean Screen Program, a butterfly industry first. This is a 3rd-party OE testing program in which professional breeders voluntarily submit Monarch chrysalises to an independent University laboratory for OE testing when the adult butterfly emerges. Submitting fresh chrysalises eliminates any possibility of “selection” for OE-free AFBlogo

butterflies. Acceptable OE levels reflect natural background levels, with 20% of all butterflies tested having either no OE or showing light contamination (less than 100 spores). The program was set up with comments and advice from Dr. Sonia Altizer, a leading Monarch butterfly researcher and world-expert on OE.

Testing is voluntary and anonymous. Breeders will receive a Clean Screen rating and be highlighted on the AFB website as part of a Preferred Listing. The rating indicates that the breeder has met standards for OE prevention that have been approved by academic researchers. No program with this level of rigor and independent evaluation has ever been attempted. This is a serious program to address a legitimate concern. It is open to all butterfly farmers, even if they do not belong to the AFB.

The purpose of this testing program is not to penalize breeders who may have OE-positive butterflies, but to get a better picture of the butterfly industry, offer support and education, troubleshoot, identify, and correct possible rearing problems, and to encourage all butterfly breeders to do a better job of keeping a clean operation. The result will be that customers will be able to compare butterfly breeders based on this independent standard. The marketplace will determine the rest. Independent, 3rd-party certification allows customers to know that the breeder was producing Clean Screen stock at the time and that they are taking an active interest in producing healthy butterflies. Thus, it is in the butterfly breeder’s best interest, once they have Clean Screen stock, to maintain them.

There are unscrupulous butterfly breeders out there who do not practice clean breeding techniques and give the entire butterfly industry an unfavorable image. Because these unscrupulous breeders exist, buying butterflies from breeders engaged in independent 3rd-party testing allows customers to know that they are buying from a butterfly breeder who is seriously working to produce healthy butterflies.

In closing, butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and the AFB is working hard to provide the best possible support to butterfly breeders for rearing healthy butterflies.

*When she’s not raising butterflies, Barbara Dorf works as a fishery biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife.  She earned her PhD in biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and holds undergraduate degrees in wildlife and fisheries science and aquatic biology.
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Lawsuit seeks ESA Monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders

The battle to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act inched forward last week, as the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety announced they will file suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failing to meet a December 26 deadline.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

Will Monarch butterflies be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The intent to file suit was announced in a January 5 press release and will be acted upon in 60 days if no ruling is made.

Those specializing in endangered species issues said such lawsuits are not unusual in the often convoluted listing process. After providing an update to the Texas State Comptroller’s Monarch Butterfly Task Force Working Group in Austin last moth, Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, said such lawsuits at times delay the process and other times speed things up.

David Braun, Principal of Braun & Gresham, a Dripping Springs, Texas-based law firm that works with private landowners and communities on endangered species issues, said, “It’s not unusual, but frankly I think it sometimes slows things down.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX list--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower –photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. LIncoln Brower, who joined with the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety in filing the petition in August of 2014, was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX email list, a listserv of about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

In sharing the news, Dr. Brower pointed out how powerful the petition has been in galvanizing support for Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.  It has stimulated “all sorts of positive national and international actions to help what is an increasingly serious problem,” wrote Brower.

Commercial butterfly breeders, who oppose clauses in the petition that support an end to the commercial breeding and shipping of Monarch butterflies, took the news in stride.

“Lawsuits resulting from an impassioned and hot button issue such as Monarch butterflies come as no surprise,” said Kathy Marshburn, president of the 100-member International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), a trade association for those who make a living breeding and selling butterflies.

The Association for Butterflies, another butterfly breeding interest group of 81 commercial and hobbyist breeders (including me), quickly relayed the news to its membership which provoked a general consensus that “the lawyers” will be the only winners in the saga.

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  In particular, the Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses a special threat. OE thrives in conditions where the butterflies congregate in large groups, are crowded (presumably as in breeding operations), and/or where milkweeds overwinter.  Recent studies by University of Georgia scientists raise concerns that OE spores, which transfer from the butterflies to their milkweed host plant,  will be consumed by and infect subsequent generations of caterpillars, carried into the next season, and ultimately, jeopardize the migration.

Yet scientists agree that OE already is present in the wild population, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Scientists use a 1-5 rating system to determine the extent to which a Monarch butterfly is infected.  On her Monarch parasites webpage, OE expert Dr. Sonia Altizer and her University of Georgia team recommend destroying any Monarchs which are infected by putting them in the freezer for an hour.

Both the IBBA and the AFB have taken steps to educate their memberships about best practices for raising healthy, OE-free butterflies in response to the petition.

ibbaIBBA President Marshburn relayed that courses given by Monarch scientists Dr. Sonia Altizer and Dr. Jaap de Roode have been provided to IBBA members at no charge.  Coaching calls by the IBBA’s most experienced breeders and discounts for pathology screenings are also offered.

The AFB has also worked to educate its membership. President Tatia VeltKamp shared plans for a voluntary OE pupae screening with an independent lab as well as a seal farmers can earn and display on their websites when they complete a four-week disease course.

Education is a step in the right direction, but commercial breeders need to be more aggressive in creating some kind of mandatory self-regulation to ensure healthy livestock don’t damage the wild population.  Independent random OE testing of commercially bred butterflies would go a long way toward assuaging concerns.  The USDA already regulates the transport of butterflies across state lines, requiring shipping permits and forbidding certain species where they are not native.  But OE demands a special check.

OE spores

OE spores are the smaller dots. The larger football shapes are scales. Photo via Monarchparasites.uga.edu

Another option would be to have an independent firm inspect and certify OE free environments at farms. Findings would be published online and butterfly buying customers could choose the reputable “clean” breeders before making a purchase.

Presumably, breeders could also charge more for OE-free certified butterflies—like organic produce. To offset extra costs, breeders could increase prices or suggest a voluntary additional charge on each order. Monarch butterflies typically cost $7.50 and up retail,  depending on availability, time of year, and number ordered. Shipping charges also apply.

I admit to having a soft spot for commercial butterfly breeders. For a brief time, I wanted to become a breeder and joined the IBBA. I got to know this wonderful group of butterfly enthusiasts and learned to respect the challenge of breeding healthy butterflies on deadline.  It’s hard work.

In addition, every butterfly breeder I met through these organizations gravitated to the business because of pure passion for butterflies and a desire to share it.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

The magic and engagement resulting from interactions with butterflies is one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

There’s a place in Monarch butterfly conservation for commercial butterfly breeding. The magic, education and joy that result from the tactile experience of the inter-species connection of butterfly release events and education have the capacity to touch people and make them care.  Interacting with Monarchs in a tactile way serves as one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal.  It should not be reserved only for scientists, professionals, or those with access to wild milkweed patches and gardens, which is what would happen if commercial butterfly breeding were outlawed by the petition’s enactment.  City kids would be completely cut out of this experience if the Monarch becomes listed. And that would be a shame.

Continued lethargy by the IBBA and AFB on self-regulation will contribute to more scrutiny of commercially bred butterfly livestock and could result in more government regulation of their industry.   At best, inaction fosters a PR problem; at worst, it spells the demise of their industry.

Meanwhile, this focus on professional breeders does nothing to address the many butterflies raised at home by people like me who know way less about clean breeding than those who make their living from it.  Based on personal experience and from the active exchanges on the DPLEX list, thousands and thousands of butterflies are raised and released by hobbyist enthusiasts each season. Do those rearing at home bleach their caterpillar cages, wear disposable plastic gloves, provide each caterpillar with their personal container?

Few of these home-reared butterflies, if any, are checked for OE.  Even if Monarchs are listed, I can’t imagine people stopping this practice, which would limit enthusiasts to 100 butterflies per person/per year.  That suggested number increased from 10 per year in the petition after much public outcry.  I agree with Dr. Brower that the petition has done much to galvanize interest and support in Monarchs and other butterflies–including raising them at home.

Monarch Butterfly chrysalis envy

Hobbyist breeders unleash thousands of Monarch butterflies into the universe each season. How many have OE? Photo by Tami Gingrich of northeastern Ohio via Facebook

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use.  Is OE, one of many diseases and natural threats to Monarchs and other milkweed feeders a major factor in the Monarchs’ decline?

Some scientists think so.  Dr. Andy Davis, who is married to Dr. Sonia Altizer, has stated emphatically that the Monarch butterfly is not endangered but that he supports the petition because he thinks OE is the number one threat to Monarchs.

In a recent blogpost on his extremely readable MonarchScience blog, Davis stated: “That’s right, the Monarch declines are not a sure thing.”

In a November 7, 2015 blogpost headlined Why I signed the petition to list Monarchs, even though the evidence for declines is shaky, Davis laid out his logic for supporting the petition. “If I don’t think Monarchs are declining, why did I sign it? It was actually because of a small clause that was buried in the fine print – that stated if the listing was enacted, it would become illegal for people to rear more than 100 Monarchs.”

Davis is adamantly opposed to people raising Monarch butterflies in large numbers because he feels that OE is the number one threat to the Monarch migration. As the contentious debate to answer that question continues, commercial breeders could make a huge contribution to the cause by developing credible ways to eradicate OE in their livestock.

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Texas Comptroller’s office provides update on Monarch butterfly research, ESA status

About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Late season UTSA Monarch

UTSA is growing A LOT of milkweed. Here, late season Monarch, 12/8/2015 at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.

In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.

Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”

And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.

UTSA's Dr. Janis Bush is leading the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush is leading the research. Courtesy photo

The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.

About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November.   The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.

“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”

The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed.   The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.

Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.  “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”

The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices.   For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed?  How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.

“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”

 

ESA process

The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic via USFWS

Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.

At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  she said.

Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.

Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Monarch butterfly laying eggs.   Apparently, lates season Monarchs ARE reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive.  Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs  suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.

Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well  laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.

This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch.  Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.

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