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Monarch Butterfly
Conservation Crisis

On September 12, 2000, The New York Times published an urgent warning by noted Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln P. Brower, and other scientists and conservationists, describing a crisis situation at the Monarch butterfly's overwintering grounds in central Mexico (The New York Times, Science Times, p. 1). Ten days later, the New York City Parks Department hosted a "who's who" of Monarch experts and conservationists in New York's Central Park, to inform the public and media about both the crisis and a proposed international response. The event, called "Monarch Watch 2000 in Central Park" was supported by Mastervision, Monarch Watch (a national Monarch Butterfly research program headquartered at the University of Kansas), the New York City Parks Department, and the Urban Park Rangers.

In speeches and written statements, Monarch experts Drs. Lincoln Brower, Orley Taylor, Paul Opler, Robert Michael Pyle, accompanied by officials from the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund, described the urgent situation at the overwintering sites of the Monarch butterfly in Mexico where, for millenia, hundreds of millions of Monarch butterflies migrate each year. A recent study at the site (a small region of mountain fir forests located in Michoacan State, Mexico) has indicated forest destruction far exceeds what was anticipated.

Supporting the message of urgency were representatives of numerous other conservation-oriented groups, including the Michoacan Reforestation Fund and Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation (which both work at the Mexican overwintering grounds) and the Aubudon Society, Sierra Club, Linnaean Society, Metropolitan Biodiversity Center of the American Museum of Natural History, American Ethical Union and New York Butterfly Club. The gravity of the reports brought out reporters and camera teams from ABC, CBS, The New York Times and Newsday as well as representative of the Mexican media.

Deforestation in Mexico

Scientists speaking in Central Park said the recent crisis became apparent with the release of results of the first scientific study measuring the degree of forest deterioration wihin the Mexican Monarch's overwintering habitats over the last decade. The study, by an international scientific team cooperating with the Mexican government, was authored by Dr. Brower and colleagues at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the World Wildlife Fund. The research results, reviewed September 12 in The New York Times Science Times, showed that within the Monarch roosting areas barely more than half of what used to be intact forest currently remains. At this rate of deterioration, the researchers estimated, nearly all original forest now used for Monarch roosting in Mexico would be critically degraded by the year 2050. More frightening, however, was the likelihood, they said, that forest thinning, combined with complex niche requirements of the overwintering Monarchs, would make successful mass roosting by the species in Mexico impossible much sooner, perhaps within a decade.

Speaking of the extent of current deforestation, Dr. Brower stated "From what I've seen there year after year, I predicted it would be bad and getting worse. But I didn't predict it would be this bad. The maps just floored me."

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, a monarch ecologist at the University of Minnesota interviewed by The New York Times noted "It's the first study and a really important study. We didn't expect the change to be this great." Dr. Orley Taylor, of Monarch Watch, said "Conservation of the monarch migration is a now a significant concern. In good years as many as 500 million monarchs in eastern North America migrate to Mexico...truly one of the world's wonders. Yet the continuation of this phenomenon is threatened by deforestation in Mexico...." Emphasizing the international context both the crisis and possible solutions, Dr. Paul Opler stated "Monarch conservation is a two-way street.... It behooves us to give as much assistance to efforts in Mexico as we can from the United States."

The New Conservation Strategy

In response to the immediate crisis, Mexican representatives and Monarch specialists explained a more aggressive conservation strategy calling for, among other things, an expanded preserve totaling more than three times the size of current protected areas. Ms. Missrie noted that this new effort was needed because, since 1986 when the Mexican government created the current reserve, 44% of its high quality forest had still been destroyed. This destruction resulted, in large part, because of lack of support for the conservation program from the local populace within and around the overwintering reserves. According to Dr. Brower and Ms. Missrie, the lack of a program to compensate, or otherwise positively motivate, residents in and around the Monarch preserves had become the "achilles heel" of earlier conservation strategies. Members of the local populace not only did not support the conservation effort, some continued to cut down the forests, in spite of its status as a protected area.

As a result, major elements of the new strategy aim directly at the positive motivation of the local populace &emdash; to bring the people living in and around the reserves into a supportive relationship with the forest protection program. This effort will involve direct compensation for non-use of protected forest areas and for participation in the conservation programs themselves, merging the forest protection strategy into the local economic and political scheme.

Funding for this new effort will come from a newly created "Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund." This fund, which will provide a variety of financial incentives for local residents to support the overall conservation strategy of the region, will be administered by World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature. The MBCS has been seeded with $5 million initial funding but, Brower and Missie stated, will require $30 million to meets its ultimate goals.

Public Response

During the question and answer period following Dr. Brower's speech, he was asked by a reporter how one answers the question "What difference does it make if Monarch butterflies go extinct." Dr. Brower answered that to ask this question is the same as asking "What difference does it make if the Mona Lisa is destroyed or England's Crown Jewels thrown into the trash?" "Who cares about the Crown Jewels?" he continued. "The fact is people, people do care about them; they line up by the hundreds in London to see them. Why? Because, as with the Mona Lisa, they have been taught that these objects have value, that they are a part of man's cultural heritage. Shouldn't it be the same for natural treasures?" The Central Park crowd applauded.

Dr. Brower's view reflects what the conservation movement has come to call "the aesthectic argument"- that natural wonders, like the Monarch butterfly's millenial migration to Mexico, have the same inherent value world citizenry has somehow learned to accord to works of art. Brower, and many educators, believe that the sense of value directed at works of art results primarily from education. As the noted Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum has said: "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." Brower, and others, believe that a sense of value in natural treasures can be successfully taught.

Butterfly enthusiasts at the Central Park event acknowledged that they are probably the Monarch butterfly's strongest ally. However, although they anticipate a major effort on the Monarch's behalf by all international organizations dedicated to the study and appreciation of butterflies, they emphasized that a much wider public awareness of the Monarch's plight will be needed to actually save the Monarch in Mexico. They likened to the crisis to that which generated worldwide support for the causes of whales, bald eagles, and other prominent natural symbols. Part of the problem with drawing attention to the Monarch's plight, the said, is that it is considered a common butterfly by so many people. Most of these persons do not understand that, without the Mexican overwintering grounds, survival of this grand species of butterfly in eastern North American cannot continue.

Accordingly, Dr. Taylor emphasized the ongoing need for study and education about the Monarch. "Although preserving the overwintering sites in Mexico is fundamental to Monarch conservation," he stressed, "we still need to know more about Monarchs everywhere." " Accordingly", he said "Our goals at Monarch Watch are not only to draw attention to these threats to the migration but also to evaluate the impact of overall human activities on monarch populations. If we are going to protect the monarch migration, we need to develop a baseline for the population, that is, to know the size of the population and to identify those factors that cause monarch numbers to decline or increase. The tagging program is helping us get these answers. Each year, Monarch Watch issues 250,000 tags to schools and volunteers. These assistants, including tens of thousands of children, tag approximately 70,000 monarchs each season. The data from recoveries of tagged monarchs in the United States and in Mexico enable us to 1) Determine the origins of the monarchs that reach Mexico; 2) Calculate the mortality of monarchs during migration, and 3) Estimate the overall size of the migratory population. In the future, data on population size and dynamics will be extremely important in determining whether the monarch populations are declining or increasing as a result of human activities". Dr. Taylor emphasized that this was why illustrating tagging at the New York event was an important educational and conservation tool.

For more information on the crisis and how you can help, contact:

URL for Monarch Crisis Information:

http://www.mastervision.com/mw2000

 

published October/November 2000 Newsletter
Last Updated 10/16/00


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