Monarch butterfly numbers dropping but government commitment strong: McKenna

Data released today by Mexico shows monarch butterflies populations have dropped by about a third, but Canada, the U.S. and Mexico have pledged to protect the magnificent insect.


The branches sagged from the weight of butterflies. Thousands upon thousands of them — orange, black, and white — carpeted the trees around us, and the sound of their fluttering wings echoed through the still forest.

My three kids were mesmerized. Over Christmas holidays, in early January, we hiked the mountains of central Mexico with Omar Vidal, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, to see the famous monarch butterflies. Each year, millions of monarchs fly from Canada and the U.S. to Mexico, over rivers, farms and mountains, to spend winter in densely packed colonies down south. It is one of the largest migrations on Earth.

But monarch populations are under serious threat. The Mexican government released alarming new data today. It showed that last year, there were enough monarchs to cover an area the size of about three soccer fields. This year, there’s barely enough to cover an area the size of two soccer fields.

The long-term trend is even more worrisome.

Over the past twenty years, monarch populations in North America have decreased by 90 per cent — threatened by deforestation, pesticide use, climate change, and the destruction of milkweed plants, where they lay their eggs.

Without protection they could become a footnote in history, like the passenger pigeons that swarmed the skies, or the buffalo that thundered across the plains.

But ongoing efforts by scientists, governments, and concerned citizens have brought hope.

Much of this work was started in the mid-1930s by Fred Urquhart, a biology professor at the University of Toronto, my alma mater. Back then, little was known about the monarch, and much of their migration was largely a mystery.

After spending spring and summer in the U.S. and Canada, it seemed they just disappeared before winter. . Urquhart and his wife Norah decided to look for answers. They didn’t anticipate it would take them more than 30 years to solve the mystery.

To track the butterflies they started tagging monarch wings with stickers. Then they put ads in newspapers across North America, urging citizen scientists to tag monarchs as well. Over the years it became clear: the butterflies were funneling into Mexico for winter. Yet the precise location was still unknown.

The answer came on Jan. 9, 1975, when Urquhart received a call from American naturalist Kenneth Brugger. Brugger and his Mexican wife Catalina had seen the Urquharts’ advertisement in a local Mexican newspaper, and spent two years searching the arid Sierra Madre Mountains for the butterflies. Over the phone Brugger announced:

“We have located the colony! … We have found them — millions of butterflies!”

After thirty 30 of searching, the mystery was solved. The monarchs escaped to mountain areas in the Mexican states of Michoacán and Estado de Mexico, to avoid, as Urquhart wrote years later, the “killing frosts of winter.”

The Urquharts’ research on monarch breeding and migration patterns was foundational. It helped conservationists better understand and protect the species.

But as illegal logging, new farming practices, and extreme climate events continued to reduce monarch numbers over the years, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico decided to take action.

In Mexico, the government created butterfly reserves to protect vulnerable habitats from illegal logging. And where forests have already been devastated, other groups — including the WWF in Mexico — are replanting trees. Mexican Environment Minister Rafael Pacchiano Alaman has also done excellent work pushing for monarch protection.

In the U.S., the government has invested millions to replant milkweed along waterways and farmland, building a corridor through the continent where monarchs can breed and lay their eggs during migration.

In Canada, organizations such as Mission Monarch are empowering citizen scientists to collect essential data. It gives people the tools to collect information on monarch eggs, caterpillars, and pupae, helping to protect breeding grounds in Canada.

Through the years our countries have forged strong working relationships. In 2008, we created the North American Monarch Conservation Plan. Important work is being done through the Commission on Environmental Cooperation. And during the North American Leaders’ Summit the leaders of our three countries stated that we will continue protecting the monarch.

I can still see the look on my daughter’s face when a large butterfly landed on her hand. She stood still, her eyes full of wonder. And just as quickly it flew away. When Urquhart visited Mexico, he described the sight of monarchs in flight. They filled the air with their “sun shot wings, shimmering against the blue mountain sky,” he wrote.

We can only save the monarch butterfly by working together. Through continued research, education, and protection, we can give future generations the same opportunity my children and Urquhart had: to look in wonder at the beautiful orange, black and white butterfly.


Reference: The Star


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