Mexican Government
Helps Monarch Butterfly Survival

By Malcolm Callister

Mariposa Monarca 3

 

I recently joined the Monarch Butterfly migration when I traveled to the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in the state of Michoacan, Mexico where millions of Monarch’s from Canada and the northern United States, have been hibernating each winter for recorded history. Every year millions of these butterflies gather here safe from predators, waiting for spring.

Sebastian Jannelli, of Greenpeace, reported in July of 2015 that “Over the last two decades, Monarch Butterfly populations have declined by nearly 90 percent.”

We rode the last two kilometers on horseback the added climb of 500m as the mountain rose to a height of 3100m (2 Miles) above sea level.  From the car park, we had walked the first 20-minutes up the paved pathway to the entrance of the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, and the horses. The personally imposed rest stops attested to the lack of oxygen in the air at this altitude, and how steep the walkway was.

This is technically in the Tropics, but at this elevation, a warm jacket is required. It can snow up here. The thirty people had traveled by tour bus up the winding mountain roads through the villages of Angangueo and Ocampo, to the car park at 2400min the small village of El Rosario, Michoacan, Mexico.The car park has Baños and tarp covered restaurants. The last bathrooms are at the end of the 20-minute walk to the entrance of the park where the horses were waited to carry us the rest of the way. There is also the option of hiking to the top.

This year (2017) was my first visit to El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. After the 20-minute horse ride up a winding trail with a 30-degrees lope, we reached the end of the horse trail and the start of the 10-minute hiking trail into the forest and the butterfly colony.

The Monarch colony is roped off from the trail and looks at first like large bunches of grapes hanging from the pine trees these are hibernation clusters. On bright, warm days when the sunlight brings heat to their waiting bodies, large numbers take short, spectacular flights through the forest clearings. It appears to be flights of pure pleasure, but it is more likely to be for the practical reason of soaking up the sun’s life-giving energy as they wait for the call of Spring and their flight north. Monarch’s reach their hibernation ground starting in November each year where they form the great hibernation clusters hanging from the pine trees huddled together for warmth. It is one of the wonders of our world to see Monarch’s like this in their pale and drab faded hibernation colors.  Yet we may be the last generation privileged to see it.

A butterfly has four distinct stages, these are; egg, larva, pupa and adult butterfly. For the mighty Monarch, this takes about a month from egg to adult. For the annual migration, it takes about four of these life cycles to reach the hibernation grounds. The adult Monarch will live up to six weeks during the migration seasons but will live the four/five months of the winter in a hibernation cluster huddled together for warmth.

Monarchs feed and breed only on the milkweed plant. Monarch’s along with other pollinators are threatened by habitation loss and herbicides. Mexico has taken a stand with the creation of the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. This sanctuary protects the Monarch Butterflies when they are in their vulnerable winter hibernation stage. But there is another problem. A problem caused by the Monarch itself and its lack of diversified feeding/breeding habits. Milkweed habitation in Canada and the US is being destroyed by housing construction, farming, and herbicides. We have reduced the number and size of the Monarch milkweed feeding grounds. If the Monarch’s cannot get to milkweed during their migrations and summer breeding times, they will not be able to feed or reproduce the following generations, their very survival is at risk.

I was at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in early March on a chilly day with only occasional periods of warm sunlight breaking through the cloud. Even these short burst of warmth caused hundreds of butterflies to rise from their grape-like hibernation clusters and follow the sunbeams as they moved slowly across the forest clearings. They are getting ready to migrate north with the expectation the essential milkweed will be where it has always been.

Next season will see the opening of gift stores along the tourist route from the carpark, with its food stands to the base of the trails, high on this mountain. The box-like store shells were under construction as we walked past. This has been a Mexican government-inspired project to help the local villagers glean every tourist peso possible during the three-month butterfly winter season.

But will visitors come if the Monarch Butterfly die-off continues? Will people come to see where the extinct Monarch Butterfly used to come for their winter hibernation?

“Late in March we usually get a spring snowfall.” Rosa, my guide at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary informed me. “As the snow melts, the Monarch’s will start to leave this unique mountain top and head north. Then over the following three-day period, they will all be gone.” She said with almost the sad/happy look of a mother seeing her young child off to school on their first school bus. “They will return next year.” She added with a note of uncertainty in her voice.

Then Rosa gave another sad afterthought “In past years the butterflies covered this mountain top, not just the relatively small area that you are looking at today.”

“Are we the last generation to see Monarch Butterflies in their millions?”

“What are we in the collective countries of North America going to do about it?”

 

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