Climate change blamed for 15% drop in migrating Monarch butterfly population

Monarch butterflies have left their roosts in Mexico and will be arriving in the “Texas Funnel,” which includes San Antonio and the Hill Country in the next few weeks. Those tracking their great migration through Texas to Canada in 2018 will see nearly 15% fewer butterflies start the long, multigeneration journey.

The winter roosting populations declined 14.7% over the previous year, World Wildlife Fund officials announced. The iconic orange-and-black insects’ occupied only 6.12 acres at this year’s winter roosts in the Mexican mountains. The population is far below the 14.82 acres goal set by the 2017 Monarch Conservation Implementation Plan.

What impacts would a copper mine have on Monarch roosting sites in Angangueo, Michoacán? Photo copyright Veronica Prida

During peak migration years in the late 1990s, the monarch butterfly population occupied about 44 acres of forest. NOTE: Scientists calculate the population numbers by measuring the amount of forest occupied by overwintering monarchs.

In explaining the decline in monarch numbers, WWF officials blamed climate change–specifically, warming weather and a freak sleet storm that occurred in early 2017.

In 2016, a spring storm clobbered the forest, removing at least 100 acres of Oyamel firs whose evergreen foliage provides an insulation blanket for the butterflies during the cold winter months. The storm also decimated at least 50 million butterflies just as overwintering monarchs began their 2017 migration north. This contributed to the shortfall, officials said.

“These climate phenomena without a doubt have an impact on the migration,” said Jorge Rickards, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, at a press conference earlier this week. The organization participates in the annual study that takes the butterfly census.

Warming temperatures raise concerns at the roosting sites and throughout the butterflies’ migratory range. Hotter temperatures cause the butterflies to burn through their stored winter fats, since they are more inclined to leave the warmth of the trees in which they roost and seek nectar and water. This can result in an energy shortage when spring migration time arrives.

A changing climate can also effect the availability of the butterflies’ host plant, milkweed. If the weather warms too early and too quickly, the milkweeds don’t have time to sprout the leaves that will attract monarchs’ egg laying. The butterflies will keep moving north–and possibly perish before reproducing.

Warmer weather will likely continue. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center said in its mid February 90-day outlook bulletin that Texas, typically the first stop for migrating monarchs, has a 60-70 percent probability of “higher than average”

Antelope horns milkweed, a monarch butterfly host plant, awaits monarchs in April 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

temperatures this spring. In San Antonio, SAWS, the local water utility lauded for its conservation efforts, speculated at a recent community conservation meeting that Texas will enter another drought this summer and suggested Stage One lawn watering restrictions will be implemented by late March.

Wildflowers, important nectar fuel stops for monarchs and bees, are likely to put on an “average” show this year, according to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Andrea Delong-Amaya, director of horticulture, said bluebonnets and other wildflowers may be smaller in size because of a lack of rain, and that it’s too early to determine regional milkweed availability.

In Mexico, monarch butterfly conservationists reported early departures from the spring roosting sites. “The news was early, but it was sudden and certain,” read the Journey North weekly monarch migration update this week. “On March 3rd, two substantial sightings were reported north of the sanctuaries.”

“Millions of monarchs are now en route to northern Mexico and Texas,” wrote Ellen Sharp, co-owner of J&M Butterfly BnB in Macheros, situated near the entrance of Cerro Pelón, a sanctuary to 30% of this year’s monarch butterflies. Sharp wrote the  butterflies “seemed confused” by warm temperatures.

Apart from climate change, pesticide use, illegal logging and habitat loss, the Americas’ favorite insect may soon face yet another threat. Reports suggest Grupo Mexico, a $500 billion mining concern traded on the Mexican Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol GMEXICOB, will reopen a long shuttered copper mine at El Rosario, the most freqently visited of the monarch sanctuaries. Grupo Mexico, WWF, and CONABIO, Mexico’s Commission on National Biodiversity, all declined repeated requests for clarification on the status of the copper mine.

Grupo Mexico has stated for years that since the mine operated until 1992 in Angangueo, Michoacán, and technically never closed, it 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.

On hot days, monarch butterflies puddle on mountain seeps. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Details of the mine’s reopening have not been disclosed publicly, but locals and visitors report the copper mine is due to restart. “I haven’t heard anything new about the mine—just that it’s happening,” said Ellen Sharp.

Eleonor Briggs, a wildlife photographer who lives in New Hampshire, returned from the area recently and said that a WWF official told her the mine is on track to reopen. “He said not to worry since this was only a ‘small’ reopening for two years and then they would shut for good,” said Briggs. She also was told an ore reprocessing plant will be built in the town to extract the copper.

Grupo Mexico website

Grupo Mexico lists Angangueo as a future mining project on its website. The company website also touts a reputation for “lowest extraction costs in the industry” and status as member of the Mexican Stock Exchange’s Sustainable IPC index, a financial indicator that acknowledges the companies with the highest commitment to social responsibility, environmental performance, and corporate governance.

In 2014, the company was responsible for the worst mining accident in Mexican history. At a mine in Buenavista in the northern state of Sonora, Mexico, the incident left dozens of miners to die underground after methane explosions. It also spilled 10 million gallons of copper sulfate acid into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers, 25 miles south of the U.S. border with Arizona, leaving 24,000 people without clean water.

Copper mining and processing use huge amounts of water, create problematic waste, and impact water quality, soil quality and ecosystem loss and vegetation. The implications are huge for a forest stressed by drought and a migration taxed by climate change.

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Eavesdropping on Monarch butterflies via live stream at Cerro Pelón, Mexico

Sound artist Rob Mackay and a group of academics, artists, scientists and technicians recently installed a streaming device at Cerro Pelón in the mountains of Mexico, one of four monarch butterfly sanctuaries open to the public.

Eavesdropping on monarch butterflies at Cerro Pelón. Photo by Rob Mackay

The result of that collaboration is that anyone, anywhere, can eavesdrop on the remote stretch of mountain plain where millions of monarch butterflies gather each fall to wait out the winter. You don’t even have to make the hike to 11,000 feet. Try it at this link on just about any browser but Safari, which seems to block the stream’s ability to load.

You’re likely to hear birds chittering, flies humming, the occasional whir of an airplane or engine, and the sometime sound of monarch butterflies moving through thin mountain air. The live stream makes for soothing, natural white noise and a welcome soundtrack for work, play or relaxation. It also helps scientists monitor changes over time which allows for useful assessment of the ecosystem’s health.

Monarch butterflies are the stars of the show at UNESCO’s Biosphere Soundscape project at Cerro Pelón, but the sounds of other creatures also contribute to the soundtrack . Photo by Rob Mackay

The project is an extension of Biosphere’s Soundscapes, an acoustic ecology initiative run in collaboration with UNESCO’s 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries. The program aims to inspire communities to listen to the environment and explore the value of sound as a measure for environmental health, an idea posed in 1962 by Rachel Carson. Her landmark book, Silent Spring, put forth the notion that natural sounds can serve as indicators of environmental health. At the time of its publication, the book detailed the use of pesticides that were massively killing songbirds, a phenomenon that would some day lead to a “silent spring.”

Rob Mackay

Mackay, a composer, sound artist and senior lecturer at the University of Hull in East Yorkshire, England, spearheaded the project at Cerro Pelón.Mackay tripped upon monarch butterflies in March of 2015 when he was invited to present at the Mexican National Centre for Music and Sonic Arts in Morelia.

“One of my ecology colleagues mentioned to me that the monarch butterfly overwintering grounds were very close to Morelia,” Mackay said by email. “He told me about their amazing migration and life cycle. I was immediately intrigued and went online to do a little more research. A few links mentioned the sound made by their rushing wings, so I was inspired to try and capture the sound.” On that trip, Mackay visited El Rosario, the most frequently visited sanctuary in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Later in 2015 at a conference, Mackay met Grant Smith from SoundCamp, the people who supply the streamboxes for streaming soundscapes in real-time over the internet. He also met Leah Barclay, a sound artist who oversees the Biosphere Soundscapes project.

The Biosphere Reserve Soundscape at Cerro Pelón is one of two streams in Central America featured on the Locus Sonus Soundmap. There are another eight streams in North America.

Mackay proposed installing a streambox in the Cerro Pelón colony to help scientists monitor the ecosystem there and engage people around the world with monarch butterflies through sound. He ran the idea by monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower in Virginia. Brower blessed it.

Mackay said the project accelerated once Pablo Jaramillo, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Morelia, got involved. Jaramillo, as the local scientific advisor and contact, was able to rally forces and put the team in touch with arborists at Cerro Pelón as well as Franco Ramirez. Ramirez managed the practically impossible task of arranging an internet connection to the remote mountain village of Macheros, population 350. Solar panels also had to be installed to provide electricity.

How the magic happens: stream box and solar panel. Photo by Rob Mackay

A five-day trip to Cerro Pelón in January got the job done. It also produced enough material for the collaborators to assemble an album/DVD of the process and several spontaneous musical performances and poetry readings spawned by the adventure.

Once the live stream was activated, Jaramillo shared the news with Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, the organization that orchestrates the wildly popular monarch butterfly tagging program for citizen scientists across the Americas. Taylor shared the development on the DPLEX list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 monarch butterfly followers including scientists, citizen scientists, hobbyists and commercial butterfly breeders.

Streaming the sounds of butterfly wings poses many technical challenges–special pre-amplification to the streamboxes, arranging reliable, affordable solar power and keeping the internet connection up and running. As the DPLEX community swarmed the sound map site, the connection failed, perhaps overwhelming it. But by week’s end, thanks to Team Monarca, it was back up.

Thanks to the hard work of Team Monarca, we can all eavesdrop on Cerro Pelón. L-to-R, Alice O’Rourke, Jeff Schults, David Blink, Rob Mackay, Jessica Rodriguez, Benny Talbot, Pablo Jaramillo, Liliana Arroyo  –Photo by Rob Mackay

How does acoustic artist Mackay describe the unique, subtle sound of millions of butterflies wings moving and what musical instrument would he use to replicate it?

“A little like a crackling fire, or crape paper being rustled,” said Mackay. Replicating the sound with instruments would be a challenge, but “working with a local choir and getting people to replicate the sound using their voices and bodies” might come close. “Perhaps several rain sticks and other percussion.”

UPDATE: Mackay and Jaramillo advise patience with the stream, as it is still in the pilot stage. If you click on the link and hear nothing, try again later. 

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Dreamy visit to Mexico’s Monarch butterfly roosts ends in rabies shots, credit card fraud

The Monarch butterfly roosting sanctuaries in Mexico opened to tourists this weekend. The 13 protected areas that host tens of millions of eastern migrating Monarch butterflies each winter open their gates to the public in the latter half of November. That gives the butterflies, which typically arrive by Day of the Dead on November 2, time to settle in to their Oyamel tree roosts before the tourists show up.

A sojourn to the roosting sites is a bucket list item for many. I’ve been lucky to make the trip four times, and encourage anyone so inclined to do so. If and when you go, however, watch out for street dogs and keep an eye on your credit cards. While we won’t let it tarnish our memories of an amazing adventure, a dog bite resulting in rabies shots combined with credit card fraud put unpleasant footnotes on our recent trip. You would think us unlikely victims, given that my husband Robert Rivard and I both speak Spanish, lived in Central America for years and have traveled in Mexico for decades.

We had been planning the trip for months and even secured a special permit to visit the sanctuaries before their official November 18 opening from CEPANAF, the state commission on natural parks and fauna. My goal was to “see the Monarchs come home” for a book I’m writing. All previous visits had occurred in the spring, when the iconic insects start their months-long, multi-generation migration north.

When there’s sun, the Monarchs fly. Mural at entrance of El Rosario sanctuary. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The return of the late, great 2017 population to the site of their ancestors’ departure in the Mexican mountains did not disappoint. We had an unforgettable visit to El Rosario, the most visited sanctuary. Our guide, Manual Cruz Posadas, led us on an hour-long climb up to 10,000 feet, where Monarchs gathered in tentative roosts. The folk art mural at the entrance of El Rosario accurately sums up the insects’ behaviour: “When the sun shines, the Monarchs fly; when it’s cloudy, the Monarchs rest.”

Legions of butterflies lilted from the trees each time the sun peaked from the clouds. Often they dipped to the ground for nectar or drops of dew. As soon as clouds shielded the sun, they instinctively gravitated to a designated tree. The Oyamels welcomed them with open limbs.

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On Saturday, we vacated our room at the Casa de los Recuerdos in Zitácuaro, our base the first two nights, and took a taxi to the small town of Macheros, population 350. There, Ellen Sharp, co-owner of JM’s Butterfly B&B, arranged for her brother-in-law, Vicente Moreno Rojas, to guide us on an ambitious climb up Cerro Pelón. The “bald hill” was the site of the initial “discovery” of the roosting sites back in 1975.

We started on horseback and it wasn’t easy. A steep grade, rocky, slippery trail, and thin mountain air conspired to make the trek a serious challenge–even as Vicente prodded our horses. After an hour, we arrived at the Llano de Tres Gobernadores, a flat plain between two stands of Oyamel and pine forest. There, we enjoyed a picnic lunch packed by Moreno’s sister–ham sandwich, chips, apple and pedacito de chocolate, a small bite of chocolate.

Francisco Moreno Hernandez, an arborist for Butterflies and their People, AC, a Mexican nonprofit started by Sharp and her husband to protect the forest and its inhabitants, sallied up on horseback. He advised that the butterflies were gathering another 45-minutes up the mountain, above 11,000 feet. CEPANAF Forest Ranger Javier Moreno was patrolling the area and agreed to lead us to the roosts after inspecting my permit.

Butterflies & Their People arborist Francisco Moreno Hernandez,  Monika Maeckle, CEPANAF Forest Ranger Javier Moreno and JM Butterfly B&B Guide Vicente Moreno Rojas. And yes, they’re all cousins. Photo by Robert Rivard

Never have I endured a more literally breathtaking hike. Relatively fit for my 61 years, I panted like a dog on the rigorous 45-minute climb, stopping every few minutes to absorb the magical sight of an increasing number of butterflies flitting above. As I paused every few footholds to catch my breath, I thought of my friend Catalina Trail, the first Westerner to the roosting sites. How did she ever find her way to this impossibly remote and majestic place? Ah yes, she had gone with a local the day of her momentous discovery.
The historic account by Canadian scientist Dr. Fred Urquhart, who spent decades piecing together the mystery of the Monarch butterfly migration with the help of Catalina and other volunteers, also crossed my thoughts. In a famous August 1976

A dreamy day I’ll never forget in Cerro Pelón–Photo by Robert Rivard

National Geographic cover story headlined “Discovered: the Monarch’s Mexican Haven,” Urquhart bemoaned his advanced years and leaden feet. “Our hearts pounded…” he wrote.  “The rather macabre though occurred to me: Suppose the strain proved too much?”

By late afternoon, we arrived at the trees the Monarchs had chosen. Seeing them saunter and flit against the cottony clouds and bright blue sky somehow reassured me. I sat on the ground, removed my hat, leaned back on an Oyamel stump and enjoyed the natural spectacle.

That evening, we savored a delicious trucha en papillote, trout cooked in paper. Sharp’s mother-in-law, Rosa Rojas Sanchez, 56, harvested the fish that afternoon from the Moreno family trout farm. She and her husband, five daughters and five sons, their spouses and offspring number 23, and comprise more than 6.5% of Machero’s population.

Enjoy the flowers in Macheros, but watch out for street dogs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The next morning before returning to Zitácuaro to catch our bus to Mexico City, I ambled up the hill from the B&B while one of the Moreno sisters gave Bob a hot towel shave. A champagne-colored Chihuahua mix approached me nervously, yapping loudly. I shooed him away. The ruckus roused his sleeping friend, a 40-pound mutt with a short white coat and black spots. The dog rose from his street slumber, and with no provocation or warning, charged me, sinking his jaw into my left calf. YEOW!

I kicked the beast and he retreated. Then I remembered “the cave man trick” Bob taught me when we lived in El Salvador years ago, where encounters with canines de la calle were common. Lean down and grab a rock. If no rocks are available, PRETEND you have one. Stooping in such a manner seems to signal to dogs a potential stone coming their way. They almost always retreat. The cave man trick worked when the spotted dog approached me again.

Dog bites are no fun. Use the caveman trick. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sharp helped me dress the wound, which later measured 12 mm in a San Antonio hospital emergency room. Researching and undergoing rabies shots consumed two days of my time upon my return. I agreed with the ER doctor who assessed the odds of me having rabies as “extremely low.” “But if you do,” he said, “it’s 100% fatal.”

I’m getting the shots. They’re not the horrid series of a dozen injections administered in the stomach with nine-inch needles of days past, however. That practice ended in the ’80s.

Now, the first round consists of four shots, including an intense injection of immunoglobulin into the actual dog bite. The thick liquid must be spread around the wound area—that is, the needle is inserted deeper than usual and moved in a circular motion under the skin—to deter the virus, if present, from migrating to the brain. All other shots are pretty routine.

Two days after arriving home, Bob received alarming text messages and phone calls requesting strange authorizations for luxury purchases.  “Mr. Rivard, we’re calling to authorize the recent Neiman Marcus online charge for $5,370.47.”  Someone had hijacked Bob’s Visa card for a luxury spending spree.

No permanent harm done, except for an interesting future scar on my leg. New Visa cards arrived yesterday and my sixth shot in the rabies series of seven is set for Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I am grateful to have access to good medical care and insurance. And to have had the magical experience of seeing the Monarchs come home.

Future Monarch roosting site visitors, I encourage you to go with a local. You’ll have an unforgettably authentic experience. Keep an eye on your credit cards and save all receipts. And don’t forget the cave man trick. Buen viaje.

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Border wall at National Butterfly Center violates property rights and worse

If I ever pulled up to our Llano River ranch road to find a work crew, heavy machinery, pink flagged survey stakes, and trees slashed to the ground, I’d likely grab my husband’s shotgun.

Marianna Wright, Director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas –courtesy photo

But Marianna Treviño Wright, director of the National Butterfly Center, has more self-control than me. She peacefully, but forcefully, ordered five contractors off the 100-acre private property owned by the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas along the U.S. Mexico border. Then she took to the media.

Wright told local reporters that the National Butterfly Center received no notices or requests for access to the property–even though “no trespassing” signs were prominently displayed. According to a story in the local Mission, Texas paper, the crew wielded chainsaws, two mechanized brush cutters and other pieces of heavy machinery. They told her they were on assignment from the Tikigaq Construction LLC firm in Point Hope, Alaska. Their job: mark a 150-foot clearance for President Trump’s border wall.

X marks the spot where contractors planned to dig core samples for a future levee at the National Butterfly Center. Courtesy photo

“Just about every type of wildlife is here,” Wright told Progressive Times reporter Jose de Leon III. “This habitat is rich and diverse….What will happen to them if the wall is built here?”

Next door to Wright at the 2,000+ acre Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, planning for Trump’s border wall has been underway for months. According to a July 14 story by Melissa del Bosque in the Texas Observer,  U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have been meeting quietly with private contractors to plot out the first piece of Trump’s border wall here for half a year. Plans call for 28 miles of a new levee wall system in the Rio Grande Valley and 32 new miles of border wall system here. An 18-foot levee wall will stretch for almost three miles right through the Santa Ana wildlife refuge. Construction could begin at Santa Ana as early as January 2018, a federal official who asked to remain anonymous told the Observer.

The stretch of South Texas destined to host Trump’s border wall includes at least three wildlife areas. Photo via National Butterfly Center

Designated by the federal government in 1943 as a sanctuary for migratory birds and managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Santa Ana straddles the Rio Grande and is considered one of the most diverse ecosystems left in the United States. Along with the NBC and the Bentson State Park, the natural areas collectively provide habitat for the endangered ocelot, the jaguarundi, coyotes, bobcats, armadillos and 400 species of birds. See video below.

Known as one of the top birding destinations in the world, Santa Ana is being sacrificed precisely because of its federally protected status. Since the U.S. government owns it, they won’t be subjected to pesky lawsuits from private landowners like Marianna Wright and the National Butterfly Center. As another story in the Texas Observer noted in June, a third or more of 320 condemnation suits filed against private landowners to build a wall in 2007 are still unresolved.

In contrast, the National Butterfly Center (NBC) is a project of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), a privately funded, nonprofit organization. Like its Santa Ana neighbor, NBC is devoted to the conservation of wildlife–specifically wild butterflies in their native habitats. NBC features a native species garden, offers walking trails, observation areas, educational exhibits and a plant nursery.

In a four-and-a-half minute video posted on on July 22,  Wright describes the flagrant disregard for the rule of law exercised by the work crews.

“They flat-out  ignored the private property sign and began work clearing trees along our road and the Rio Grande River,” she says in the video, as the South Texas breeze blows across the microphone.


           “this is not just about the butterflies….”

–Legal Defense Fund to Stop Trump’s Border Wall started by National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas


“You may have heard about what’s happening with the Trump border wall and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge,” says Wright, her voice rising as she refers to her government-employed neighbors. “Well those people can’t talk to you. But we can. And I’m gonna show you what’s about to be lost. And how the government is operating.”

She chronicles the violations and encourages contributions to a legal fund set up to fight it. The campaign specifically states “This is not just about the butterflies.” The federal government “will do as it pleases with our property, swiftly and secretly, in spite of our property rights and right to due process under the law,” states the campaign.

She describes the future loss of habitat that will result when “thousands of acres, 38 miles of river between Bentsen State Park and Santa Ana Wildlife will be cleared for this border wall that people climb over.  A border wall that already exists in places….It’s barely a deterrent.”

Canopy Walk, feels like the jungle at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

Canopy Walk at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, 2012. Will this view soon include a border wall? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Calling the border wall a waste of taxpayer dollars and an environmental disaster, she concludes what those of us who live in South Texas know well: border walls don’t stop illegal immigrants. We’ve had one, with gaps and gates, for years.

According to the American Immigration Council, approximately 650 miles of border fence already exists as of early 2017. We have 350 miles of primary pedestrian fencing, 300 miles of vehicle fencing, 36 miles of secondary fencing behind the primary fencing, and 14 miles of tertiary pedestrian fencing behind the secondary fence. These barriers run the gamut from tall metal and concrete posts to solid corrugated steel walls, metal fencing, and combinations thereof. Then there’s the surveillance tools–towers, cameras, motion detectors, thermal sensors, stadium lighting, ground sensors, drones. This montage of deterrents comprises the existing infrastructure aimed to stop the unauthorized entry of people, drugs, and arms into the United States.

But as former Department of Homeland Security Secretary under Obama Jeh Johnson said in a November 2016 speech: “We can spend billions of dollars to build a 10-foot wall on top of a 10,000-foot mountain. But if you’ve come all the way from Central America, it’s not going to stop you.”

Last weekend, as Wright posted her video, dozens, perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants who tunneled, hiked, swam or waded across our border were discovered packed in an unairconditioned semi truck in a San Antonio Wal-Mart parking lot. The temperature climbed to 104 degrees here on Saturday, and was likely higher on hot asphalt.

Police officers gather around the tractor-trailer and tow truck outside of Walmart where ten people died last weekend. Photo courtesy Bonnie Arbittier, Rivard Report

When a Wal-Mart employee noticed people streaming from the back of the truck, he rushed over to provide assistance and dialed 911. Several people were already dead; more than 20 were sent to local hospitals with extreme dehydration, asphyxiation and other health issues. By Monday 10 people had perished.

Wright is right: It’s NOT just about the butterflies. Nor is it just about property rights. It’s about much much more than that.

Find the National Butterfly Center’s Stop Trump’s Border Wall Legal Defense Fund campaign here.

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Monarch butterflies head north as Mexican scientists try to move their forest

One of the hottest winters in history poses good news and bad news for migrating Monarch butterflies this season. The good news: warm weather and well-timed rains translate into a grand wildflower season with plenty of milkweed in South Texas. The bad news: those same high temperatures in Mexico where the Monarchs overwinter mean that many butterflies have burned up much of their stored winter fats, creating a lack of fuel and extra stress for their journey north.

Some of the migrating creatures that arrived in the Mexican mountains last fall have already left the roosting sites. In fact, we found our first-of-season caterpillar this week on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassivaca, along the San Antonio River Walk.

But the bulk of the overwintering butterflies have yet to depart, head north and lay the first round of eggs that will launch the 2017 edition of their epic multigenerational migration. The success of that first generation, often born in Texas, sets the stage for a successful-or-not Monarch butterfly season. Subsequent generations make their way north to Canada over the summer, reproducing along the way. In the fall, they fly home to Mexico to roost until one day in March, they leave for good, head north, reproduce and die–starting the cycle anew.

first instar

First instar Monarch caterpillar found on the San Antonio River, March 9, 2017. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A recent trip to the roosting sites in Mexico found the butterflies fluttering from their roosts on the sacred firs in search of water and nectar–not unusual this time of year. The butterflies puddled in the damp mud of shallow mountain streams to rehydrate and sip nutrients. They also nectared on stands of asters, sages and various verbenas. Many butterflies lay dead on the ground–again, not unusual.

According to Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz Romero, a forest geneticist at the University of Michoacán, the winter storm of March 2016 punched dangerous holes in the forest canopy. An intact canopy serves as a blanket for the butterflies and prevents temperatures from dropping below freezing, while the butterflies wait out the winter in a semi-hibernative state.  A lack of activity in the context of cold weather and insulation provided by the forest helps them conserve lipids (previously accumulated fats in their bodies), needed for the spring remigration. Gaps in the forest canopy and hot temperatures–the warmest winter in history–force the butterflies to burn up their fats.

Sáenz Romero expressed concerns that the condition of the forest coupled with climate change could have devastating consequences when the weather turns chilly and humid. This creates a deadly combination, forming ice on the Monarchs’ wings, he said, often causing their death.

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                                             photos by Nicolas Rivard

Such concerns motivated Sáenz Romero, ecological sciences professor Arnulfo Blanco García, and a crew of University of Michoacán students to establish an experimental forest plot on the Ejido La Mesa en Sierra Campanario near San Jose del Rincon in the state of Mexico.

While the area officially serves as a Monarch sanctuary and is part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, few butterflies were present upon our visit there earlier this month. Signs of high temperatures, drought and the March 2016 storm that decimated more than 100 acres of forest and millions of butterflies were evident, however.

Sáenz Romero pointed out trees with skinny tops and a lack of foliage, which suggests a lack of water. A wet season and dry season typify the usual weather pattern here, he explained. But when the wet

Drought and high winds make the trees where the Monarchs roost vulnerable. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

season offers less rain than average and the dry season is warmer than usual, the trees can’t absorb enough water from the soil to reach the tallest limbs. Leaf and branch shedding result, creating weakened, scrawny treetops. This unhealthy state also makes the forest more susceptible to wind damage and insect attacks, said Sáenz Romero.

It wasn’t always this way, said Blanco García, taking in the vast expanse of oaks, pines and Oyamel, preferred by overwintering Monarchs. This area of Mexico has long relied on mining, which has posed different threats to the forest in the past, such as water pollution and deforestation.

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir,  planted in full sun. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir, in mixed plant community that provides partial shade. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

“Sixty years ago, there was no forest here,” he said. “But when mining stopped in the area, the forest regenerated itself.”  That was before climate change became the dominant factor it is today.

Saáenz Romero and Blanco García believe that within 70 years, the sacred firs hosting the Monarchs each winter will not be able to survive the increased temperatures and volatile weather predicted to rule the forest. The tree has a narrow window of temperature and altitude in which it can thrive, said Sáenz Romero.

With funding from Monarch Butterfly Fund in Minnesota, the Mexican Council of Science and TEchnology (CONACyT in Spanish), the Mexican Fund for the Nature Conservancy and the University of Michoacán, an experimental plot of Oyamel seedlings was placed  1,000 feet higher up the mountain than the existing sanctuaries–at 3,440 meters/11,286 feet. The approach, called assisted migration, has been successfully deployed in Canada. It aims to grow a replacement forest that in this case can be occupied by overwintering Monarchs when the roosting sites further down the mountain expire.

During a tour of the plot, now three years old, the scientists pointed out how Oyamel seedlings planted in combination with sage bushes and other tall perennials fared better than those placed in full sun. Because of the more severe dry season and higher temperatures, the Oyamels do better in a diverse plant community that offers shade at least part of the day.

“Weather proof” temperature monitor at the experimental forest in La Mesa. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Also evident: the team’s unique resourcefulness. As students measured temperatures and moisture levels of the soil, an upside-down styrofoam cup wired to a stick raised questions.  What is that?

“It’s our weather proof temperature monitor,” said Blanco García.

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

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

Piedra Herrada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium tackles tough questions

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

–Mississippi wildlife artist Walter Anderson

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

Monarch cat on swamp

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

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

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

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

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


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



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




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



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

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

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

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

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

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

*                   *                 *                *                       *               *               *

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

4:22 Rivard Report video.

7:30 Moderator Dan Goodgame introduces panelists.

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

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

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

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

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

oyamel drought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

45:39 Saenz attempts to answer the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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What will happen to pollinator advocacy under President Trump?

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

late season Monarchs

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

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

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

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

Trump and Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Taylor at zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s suggested Cabinet picks offer some insight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satija Hayhoe

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

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

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

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

climate change hayhoe book

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

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

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

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

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

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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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