McAllen, Texas becomes second NWF Monarch Butterfly Champion City

There’s a new Monarch Butterfly Champion City in the Lone Star State: McAllen.

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Tattered Monarch on Purple Mistflower at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. Photo courtesy of National Butterfly Center

For the past 10 months, San Antonio ranked as the only National Wildlife Federation  (NWF) Monarch Butterfly Champion City.  San Antonio Mayor Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last December, committing to all 24 action items recommended in the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

But that unique status is now behind us. Last week, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, citing San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor as “an inspiration,” became the second mayor in the country to step up to the plate and make pollinators a hometown priority.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has made pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has made pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Darling made the announcement at the September McAllen City Commission Meeting. Darling also declared Sept. 12 “Mayor’s Monarch Pledge Day in the City of McAllen.”

“Mayor Darling has made a major commitment to help save this iconic, declining species in a city that sits right in the middle of the Monarch butterflies’ migratory flyway,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, National Wildlife Federation senior director of community wildlife, in response to the news.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley’s McAllen-Edinburg-Mission triangle has long been a place with much wildlife diversity due to its location at the intersection of myriad ecosystems that host more than 300 species of butterflies and 520 species of birds.

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McAllen Mayor Jim Darling announces McAllen’s status as a Monarch Butterfly Champion City. Briana Deleon, Quinta Mazatlan Volunteer of the Year, dons her wings to commemorate the occasion. Photo courtesy of the McAllen Mayor’s Office.

Bird- and butterfly-viewing destinations such as Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the National Butterfly Center, the annual Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission, and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County draw nature lovers from all over. The City of McAllen attributes an annual $460 million in eco-tourism to its “natural beauty and sunny and temperate year-round climate,” according to a press release.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor welcomed McAllen to the elite club of NWF Monarch Champion Cites.

“Like us, McAllen obviously understands the significance of helping protect and promote our State Insect,” Taylor said. “I’d like to issue a challenge for all other mayors in Texas to sign the pledge and help make us the first Monarch Champion State in the U.S.”

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In an email exchange, Darling gave special credit to Colleen Hook, director of Quinta Mazatlan, a McAllen wildlife sanctuary that promotes knowledge about birds, plants, and environmental stewardship in South Texas, for “leading the effort for the Mayor.” Hook became aware of the challenge through press coverage of San Antonio’s pledge, the Mayor’s office stated via email.

“We have a big responsibility in South Texas to enhance the migratory ‘Texas Funnel’ used by butterflies, birds and many other creatures of the land,” said Hook.

Hook refers to the remarkable  “Texas funnel,”the  passage through which Monarch  butterflies migrate coming and going  each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City.

Monarch migrate through Texas coming and going through the Texas Funnel. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Monarchs migrate from Mexico to Canada and back through the ‘Texas Funnel.’ Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

“We welcome anybody else trying to help Monarchs,” said North American Butterfly Association President Jeffrey Glassberg, who also is founder of the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission. The NBC was recently featured in a Texas Monthly article titled “Mission’s Quest to Become the Butterfly Capital of the World.”

Status as a Monarch Butterfly Champion City doesn’t come easy. Municipalities must agree to adopt all 24 specific actions suggested by the NWF to support the declining Monarch butterfly migration and other pollinator habitat.

Participation in the pledge requires at a minimum for Mayors to execute three of the 24 items; to be in the “leadership circle” they must commit to eight; to become a Monarch Champion, they must do all 24. Actions range from citizen science projects and installing a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, to hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

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Since the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge was launched in September of last year, 190 entities across North America have committed to create habitat and encourage their citizens to do the same.

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically– by 80% from the 21-year average across North America. Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use, illegal logging in Mexico, and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is currently under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

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Llano River: Late season nectar plants await Monarch butterfly migration

Conditions were ideal along the Llano River last weekend with sprays of late season nectar plants poised for the arrival of Monarch butterflies in what is predicted to be a down year for their migration.

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Late season nectar plants like Swamp milkweed and Goldenrod await migrating Monarchs. The early male visited us on the Llano River last weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sprays of Goldenrod, Frostweed, Swamp milkweed and other late bloomers graced the river banks and surrounding watershed while migration forecasters called for a setback.

On March 8, a freak spring ice storm brought ice, snow and dramatic winds to the Oyamel forest where the Monarchs roost each winter. Just as they were heading north to lay the first generation of eggs in Texas, the storm destroyed 135 acres of forest and killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies – about 7.4% of the 84 million roosting at that particular preserve, Mexico’s Attorney General for Environmental Protection Alejandro Del Mazo recently told the Associated Press.

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Hangin’ out on the Llano. Monarch butterfly caterpillars and eggs were abundant last weekend on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The squall set the 2016 season off to a bad start and will likely result in a setback to the threefold population increase the Monarchs enjoyed last year, scientists suggest.

Mother Nature’s deadly blow has hit especially hard here in San Antonio, the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so named by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

In the past year, here and elsewhere, the migrating orange-and-black insects have never enjoyed more fame and fortune, as government and educational institutions have increased pollinator habitat, earmarked millions for research on milkweed – the insects’ host plant – and raised public awareness of Monarchs and other pollinators to unprecedented heights.

Mayor Ivy Taylor shows off her Monarch butterfly earrings in City Council chambers. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

Mayor Ivy Taylor shows off her Monarch butterfly earrings in City Council chambers. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

“I know how much we all look forward to seeing the majestic Monarchs every year, and it saddens me to think that their population has been impacted so dramatically by the ice storm in Mexico,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor, who signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge on Dec. 9 last year. “However, we will keep working to provide them with a safe haven here in San Antonio.”

Chip Taylor, Ph.D., founder of Monarch Watch, predicted in his annual summer Monarch Population Status blog post that 2016 would likely be comparable to 2014. The last three years have been closely monitored by Monarch aficionados: In 2013, the population dropped to 33.5 million butterflies, the lowest since records have been kept; in 2014, it increased to 56.5 million; and last year 200.5 million butterflies were recorded.

In 2015, President Obama released a National Pollinator Strategy that set out to increase the Monarch population to 225 million – the historic 20-year average.

The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet, traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.

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Monarch butterflies move through San Antonio coming and going in the spring and fall on the annual multigeneration migration. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard.

Their journey starts in March, where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of eggs on milkweed plants – the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who then grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter, despite never having been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey. The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.

Glum predictions aside, conditions could not be more perfect in Texas to welcome the migrating butterflies this fall.

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Each year around Labor Day we see the first trickle of Monarchs, or what’s called the ‘pre-migration migration’ – a vanguard of reproductive Monarch butterflies that lay eggs which will hatch and become the final generation of migrating adults.

Last weekend, half a dozen adult Monarch butterflies showed up right on cue along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Even more interesting, dozens of caterpillars and eggs were spotted on the Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a Monarch butterfly host plant, and suggested that Monarchs had been passing through in the preceding weeks. Three late stage caterpillars literally hung out on the Llano, preparing to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Goldenrod, Purple mistflower, White boneset, Snow-on-the-prairie, Frostweed–all late season nectar plants that the butterflies use as fuel stops, exhibited their showy sprays along the Llano River and elsewhere in the Texas Hill Country over Labor Day weekend. Bees, wasps, moths, beetles, and aphids were seen in large numbers, following a series of rain events that followed a scorching South Texas summer.

A male Monarch butterfly nectars on Swamp milkweed along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country as part of the "pre-migration migration." Photo by Monika Maeckle

A male Monarch butterfly nectars on Swamp milkweed along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country as part of the “pre-migration migration.” Photo by Monika Maeckle.

A quick survey of local Monarch Watchers had few sightings to report.

“Nothing to report in Comfort yet,” said Monarch Watch Education Outreach Specialist Cathy Downs. Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer Mary Kennedy said the same thing. Master Naturalist Drake White, who manages the Phil Hardberger Park butterfly garden and runs the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to helping people raise butterflies, reported two Monarch sightings. Local botanist and landscaper Charles Bartlett of Greenhaven Industries reported seeing one Monarch locally.

Sightings throughout the spring and summer have been slim, with the freak sleet storm taking most of the blame for the Monarchs’ absence.  Read more here.

To determine peak migration time for your area, consult the Monarch Watch website or Journey North.  In San Antonio, at 29 degrees latitude, we’re looking at seeing the butterflies sometime in late October.

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Monarch butterflies heading our way, but not as many as we hoped

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but their numbers are likely to be down this year.  Climate change–combined with habitat loss and other threats–dealt a heavy blow to the population, which enjoyed a celebrated threefold increase last fall.

Will Monarchs be listed as "threatened" under the Endnagered SPecies Act? We'll know in 3 years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy.Photo by Scott Ball

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but not as many as we had hoped.  Monarch on Cowpen daisy. Photo by Scott Ball

The weekend of March 8-9 proved to be a deadly setback for Monarchs. Just as they were heading to Texas from their winter roosts in Michoacán to create the first generation of 2016, a freak ice storm hit the forest where they overwinter. The frigid wind and weather killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies–about 7.4 percent of the 84 million roosting there, Mexico’s attorney general for environmental protection Alejandro Del Mazo told the Associated Press this week.

Even worse, the storm destroyed 133 acres of the Oyamel fir forest which serves as the Monarchs’ winter home as well as habitat to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, vascular plants and mushrooms. That lost canopy will take years, perhaps decades, to recover. And its service as a protective, insulating blanket for the Monarchs and other wildlife may be gone forever.

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Millions of Monarch butterflies froze to death in the March storm in Michoacán. Photo via Monarca via  Facebook

The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet,  traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.

Their journey starts in March where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of  eggs on milkweed plants—the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter–having never been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey.  The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.

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The freak ice and wind storm  destroyed 135 acres of their roosting forest. Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to a brief released by the World Wildlife Fund on August 23, the protected forest lost to the March sleet storm was four times that destroyed by illegal logging last year. Here’s the breakdown: of the 179 acres of forest lost in the last year in the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, 29.5 acres were destroyed by illegal logging, 133 acres by wind-fallen trees during the storm, and 16 acres by drought.

Experts agree that the ice storm got the season off to a bad start. Those of us who follow Monarchs noticed far fewer this spring, as the depleted population made its way north. We hoped they would recover in the summer breeding grounds.

Monarch migration map

The Monarch migration moves the iconic butterflies through the entire Eastern United States over the course of the summer. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

“Normally I collect eggs in the spring and I was down about 65% percent over seasons’ past,” said Cathy Downs, Education Outreach specialist for Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas at Lawrence-based organization that runs the citizen science tagging program that tracks the migrating butterflies.  Downs operates out of Comfort, Texas, just outside San Antonio.  “I would definitely say this was a really, really down spring.”

Further up the migratory path, social media posts from the summer breeding grounds bemoaned the general lack of Monarch butterflies.

Two tagged Monarchs

Looking forward to seeing more of these guys. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I only saw one Monarch a week ago up at Illinois Beach State Park, while we were walking the dunes, clearing them of white sweet clover,” Kathleen Garness of Forest Park, Illinois wrote to the DPLEX list June 20, an email list that reaches about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

Tony Kowall of Park Ridge, Illinois, agreed. “We really miss seeing and raising the Monarchs…. It is quite distressing to think how badly the population must of have hit with the storm earlier this year. Last year we raised 200 Monarchs.”

And this from Fred Kaluza in Detroit on the same email string: “Countryside looks like late July. Lots of uneaten milkweed. No Monarchs seen.”

Teresa Bailey‎, who lives north of Kansas City, Missouri, posted June 14 on Facebook:  “I still haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies yet. My common milkweed has grown six feet tall. Still no butterflies. I’m concerned. They should have been here a while ago.”

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Dr. Chip Taylor says we are likely to see the 2014 season again, second worst in history. Graph via Monarch Watch

Everyone’s worst suspicions were confirmed when  Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, issued his annual summer Monarch population status bulletin.

“All the data to this point in time suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in the migration and the overwintering numbers,” wrote Taylor in July, citing below normal first-of-season sightings and the ice storm.  “We will never have a comprehensive assessment of the impact of this weather event but it does appear to have been significant,” wrote Taylor, noting that some scientists were suggesting 50% of Monarchs had perished in the storm.

Despite that sad turnaround from a tripling of the population last fall, the migration is underway.  “Sightings of southbound Monarchs, intense nectaring, and the first overnight roosts are being reported,” read the headline in this week’s bulletin by Journey North, which tracks Monarch butterflies and other migrating creatures.

Journey North map

Sightings of adult Monarch butterflies as of August 25, 2016, according to Journey North.  Map via Journey North

With all the press Monarch butterflies have been getting this year, we have never been better prepared to welcome them as they move through our landscapes and gardens. In the past 18 months, millions of dollars in research has been earmarked for mIlkweed and nectar plant restoration programs, Monarch and pollinator education efforts, and general awareness of the important role Monarchs and other pollinators play in our ecosystem food web. Awareness across the Americas has never been higher.

That said, climate change will have the last word on how many Monarch butterflies will make the trip this year.

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Want to be sure to see Monarchs this fall? Join us October 22 during peak Monarch migration week in San Antoino at the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Events are FREE.

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Save the date: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio Oct. 21-22

Mark your calendars, butterfly and pollinator fans. San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at Pearl will take place October 21 – 22 this fall during peak Monarch butterfly migration week.

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The event, organized by the Texas Butterfly Ranch, will celebrate the majesty of the Monarch butterfly migration and the insect pollinators that make one of every three bites of food we eat possible. Also: we hope to honor San Antonio’s unique geographic location on the Monarch flyway, its status as America’s first and only Monarch Champion City (so named by the National Wildlife Federation), the interconnectedness of our world, and our special relationship with Mexico.

With founding sponsorship from the Pearl, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the San Antonio River Authority, HEB, the Rivard Report and Trinity University, Saturday’s events will be FREE and open to the public.

Dr. Cuahetemoc Saenz-Romero --Courtesy photo

Dr. Cuahetemoc Saenz-Romero –Courtesy photo

Festivities kick off Friday evening, October 21, 6 – 9 PM, at the Pearl Studio with a symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch butterfly migration.

Confirmed speakers include Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a PhD in forestry from Michoacán, Mexico. Dr. Sáenz-Romero has proposed moving the forest where the Monarch butterflies roost up the mountain to a higher elevation since changing climate suggests that within approximately 70 years, the forest will not be able to survive increased temperatures.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Catalina Trail on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Also confirmed: Catalina Trail, the woman from Morelia, who at the age of 25 “discovered” the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975. Trail, who now lives in Austin, appears on the August 1976 cover of National Geographic, which announced the news to scientists and the world.

Saturday, October 22, a People’s Pollinator Parade led by Earnabike Coop and San Antonio’s own Pedaling Pollinators butterfly bike troupe will convene and “migrate” through the Pearl complex. Costumes are encouraged.

Hundreds of tagged Monarch butterflies will be released in waves during the Festival. Ongoing demonstrations of How and Why to Tag a Monarch butterfly will take place.

Partner organizations will offer arts, crafts and learning activities for kids of all ages while our friends at the Pearl Farmer’s Market will feature the many insect pollinated foods that make one of every three bites of our food possible.

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

Restaurants at the Pearl will highlight foods made possible by pollinators while drinking establishments will offer “The Monarch” a special cocktail created especially for the Festival.

Special thanks to our sponsors for making the Monarch butterfly and pollinator festival at Pearl possible.

 

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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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Texas Comptroller awards $500K in Monarch research grants to Texas universities

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Tuesday that Texas A&M University and Sam Houston State University will share about $500,000 in research funding to study the Monarch butterfly. That brings the total earmarked for researching America’s favorite

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Pennies from heaven? Monarch butterflies have generated more than $800K in research grants for state universities in Texas, thanks to the Texas State Comptroller’s Office. Photo by Monika Maeckle

migrating insect by the Comptroller’s office to more than $800,000 in the Lone Star State, just since last June.

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Dr. Robert Coulson, Texas A&M University

Texas A&M will receive $299,998 to evaluate the Monarch’s population status in Texas–specifically, the species’ lifecycle, migratory habits and the possible existence of overwintering populations.  Dr. Robert Coulson, Entomologist and Director of the Knowledge Engineering Laboratory at A & M, will oversee the research, which he said will fuel the species status assessment required by US Fish and Wildlife as it gauges whether or not the Monarch should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sam Houston State will receive $207,510 to research disease and pests that threaten the butterfly. Dr. Jerry Cook, Professor & Associate VicePresident for Research Entomology, will oversee the study.

Grant recipients submitted projects for consideration in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the Comptroller’s office in February.

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

“Funding decisions were made based on recommendations by a non-biased evaluation committee with respect to the criteria detailed in the RFP,” a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office said via email. After reviewing recommendations, the Comptroller’s office decided to contract with the two universities. Names of committee members were not made public.

The upcoming studies hope to build on research done by previous Comptroller’s office grant recipients.

Last June, the University of Texas at San Antonio received $300K to survey milkweeds across the state. In March of this year, Texas A&M – Commerce was awarded $10,141.04 to conduct a pilot study on how fire ants effect the Monarch life cycle.

All the attention is motivated by an August 2014 petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In Texas, the State Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. The Task Force works with landowners, industries, local communities and institutions to assess the economic impact of proposed ESA species listings in Texas. Research surrounding the ramifications of ESA listings are funded by annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature.

“If the butterfly is listed, many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production,” said Hegar in a press release. “This crucial research will identify best practices for the voluntary protection of the species on private lands.”

Will Monarchs be listed as "threatened" under the Endnagered SPecies Act? We'll know in 3 years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy.Photo by Scott Ball

Will Monarchs be listed as “threatened” under the Endamgered Species Act? We’ll know in three years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy. Photo by Scott Ball

The news comes on the heels of a court settlement also announced on July 5 that the USFWS, which rules on all endangered species listings, was awarded three more years to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed. USFWS must issue a decision by June 30, 2019, as well as pay the legal bills of the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety, the two environmental groups that launched the ESA petition in August 2014.

While USFWS was aware the Texas Comptrollers’ office was working to incorporate more universities into the Monarch research grant cycles, a spokesperson said the timing of the announcements was a coincedence. The recent ruling suggests that at least for the next three years, continued research grants will be focused on Monarch butterflies.

“We now know Fish and Wildlife Service will be making its decision whether or not to list the Monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act by June of 2019,” said Dr. Robert Gulley, director of economic growth and endangered species management for the Comptroller’s office. “We believe the research the Comptroller’s office has commissioned, which includes looking at the fifth generation of Monarchs in Texas and the fall migration, will be important in ensuring good science is available when that decision is made.”

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US Fish and Wildlife Service gets three more years to evaluate Monarch butterfly ESA status

A Washington DC Court yesterday awarded the US Fish and Wildlife Service three more years to evaluate whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in a settlement between the government agency and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

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Three more years: That’s how long USFWS will get to determine if this guy should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The settlement also called for reimbursement of reasonable attorneys’ fees for the two environmental groups who initiated the lawsuit.

In August of 2014, CFS, CBD, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and Dr. Lincoln Brower petitioned the Service to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened.” On Dec. 31, 2014, USFWS published a 90-day finding that listing the Monarch might be warranted, and initiated a status review of the species. The Service then failed to rule on the petition by the statutory 12-month deadline.

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The complex, convoluted ESA listing process: we are still caught in the second blue bubble from the top. Courtesy graphic

As a result, in March 2016, CBD and CSF filed a complaint against the Service. Yesterday’s settlement is the Court’s answer to that complaint.

The CBD saw the three-year extension as a positive development.

“In the big picture of slow-cogged bureaucracy, a wait of three years is, relatively speaking, a good outcome,” said Tierra Curry, senior scientist for CBD, adding that many species have had to wait decades for a protection decision.

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

A freak ice and wind storm blew through the Preserve in March, just as Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.  Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

Curry cited threats to the Monarch: milkweed loss, logging in Mexico, the proposed mine in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, and high mortality and habitat damage caused by a freak winter storm in March that swept through the reserve just as many Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.

“I would like to see them gain protection sooner rather than later,” she said.

Read the CBD’s press release.

USFWS viewed the settlement as a pragmatic move.

“The settlement provides the least costly alternative to a court case the Service would have had no grounds to contest,” read a statement issued by USFWS spokesperson. “It commits the Service to submit to the Federal Register a 12-month finding for the Monarch butterfly by June 30, 2019, thereby providing a realistic timeframe for the Service to evaluate carefully whether this species warrants protection under the ESA.”

The USFWS statement also noted that the settlement “does not predetermine the Service’s decision, which must be based solely on what the best available science prescribes.”

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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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Texas brakes for butterflies: “Monarch Highway” comes to IH35

A year after President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy with plans to create a pollinator corridor along Interstate Highway 35 (IH35), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) signed an agreement to work with five other states to make the “Monarch Highway” a reality.

Common milkweed

Common milkweed, host plant to the Monarch butterfly, is one of two native milkweeds to be planted along the Monarch Highway in Texas by TxDOT. Photo by Mark Hixson via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

On May 26, Texas joined Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma in signing a Memorandum of Understanding initiated by the Federal Highway Administration. The agreement encourages collaboration among the states to establish best practices and promote public awareness of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators, and commits the states to plant native milkweeds and nectar plants along IH35, the primary flight path for the migrating insects. A Monarch Highway logo and signage are also in development.

“The I-35 Hill County rest areas are going to be planted with pollinator gardens in the next two months,” said Mark Cross, a spokesman for TxDOT.

TxDot has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

TxDOT has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

Cross added that the agency is contracting with Texas A&M University to develop short videos that will run at all four rest areas along the I-35 corridor–in Hill County at Mile Marker 362A, La Salle County at Mile Marker 59, Medina County at Mile Marker 130, and in Bell County at Mile Marker 281. The agency is also working with the Native Plant Society of TexasTexas Master Gardeners and the Gulf Coast Prairie Association.

Literature and handouts promoting pollinators will be created for distribution at all TxDOT rest areas and travel centers, and the agency will convert “several acres” at each designated rest area into pollinator habitat, said Cross, adding, “This will change the landscape from a highly maintained area to a pollinator area.”

Fifteen species of wildflowers comprise the seed mix that TxDOT is planning, said Cross, including Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, and Common milkweed, Aslcepias syriaca. 

Here’s the plant list: Black-eyed Susan, Bluebonnet, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed,  Crimson Clover, Indian Blanket, Lance-Leafed Coreopsis, Mexican Hat, Missouri Primrose,  Prairie Verbena, Purple Coneflower, Annual Phlox, Pink Evening Primrose,  Plains Coreopsis, and Purple Horsemint.

Purple coneflower

Purple coneflower, an excellent nectar plant, will be part of the seed mix for the Monarch Highway rest stops. Photo by Monika Maeckle

TxDOT also is working with South Texas Natives, a project of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, to promote and make available appropriate native seed mixes for Texas.

From its start in Gainesville, Texas at the Red River to its finish in Laredo on the Rio Grande, IH35 in Texas brags almost 590 miles–more than any other state. The Lone Star State also serves as the “Texas Funnel” for the Monarch butterfly migration, since all migrating Monarchs must pass through Texas as they move north in the spring and south in the fall, to and from their ancestral roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico.

In the spring, the butterflies seek their host plant, milkweed, on which to lay their eggs; in the fall, they fuel up on late season nectar plants to power their flight to Mexico, which can exceed 2,500 miles.

Local Native Plant Society of Texas President Joan Miller applauded the news and said that planting of the sites will be incorporated as a service project at NPSOT’s annual symposium in Glen Rose the week of October 14. “The educational value of the installations are extremely important to understanding the use of native plants in landscaping whether it is on public or private property,” said Miller.

As cast in a press release byTxDOT, the Monarch Highway will attract millions of Mexican and Canadian visitors to IH35 each year–but Texas drivers need not worry about more traffic snarls. “They won’t be traveling by road; these visitors will arrive by air as part of a fascinating and fragile migration that happens twice a year.”

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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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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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