MEXICO CITY — The number of monarch butterflies wintering in the mountains of central Mexico has dropped 22% from the previous year, and the number of trees lost from their favorite wintering grounds has tripled.
Frost and “extreme temperatures” in the United States may have played a role in the decline in butterflies during the last winter season, said Humberto Peña, director of Mexican reserves.
Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains in the US and Canada winter in the spruce forests of the western state of Michoacán, west of Mexico City. The total area they occupied last winter fell to 5.4 acres (2.21 ha) from 7 acres (2.84 ha) a year earlier.
The Annual Butterfly Count does not calculate the individual number of butterflies, but rather the number of acres they cover when they gather together on tree branches.
Gloria Tavera, director of conservation for the Mexican Commission on National Protected Areas, said the area of forest cover suitable for extinct butterflies has increased to 145 acres (58.7 ha) compared to 46.2 acres (18.8 ha) in Last year.
Illegal logging poses a serious threat to pine and spruce forests where butterflies gather in groups to keep warm. But experts said more than half of the tree losses this year were due to the removal of dead or diseased trees from fires, storms or pests. Tavera said the lack of rain has put the trees under water stress, making them more vulnerable to disease, pests and fires.
Jorge Rickards, director of the WWF Mexico’s conservation group, blamed climate change.
“The monarch butterfly is an indicator of these changes,” said Rickards.
Critics say that in the past the removal of diseased trees was used as an excuse to cut down healthy trees for timber.
Tavera said she had no proof of what happened this year, adding: “I don’t think anyone is lying.”
Each year, monarchs return to the United States and Canada with an annual migration threatened by the loss of the milkweed they feed north of the border and deforestation of butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico.
Due to a variety of factors, the number of monarchs has declined in recent years. Drought, severe weather and habitat loss – especially milkweed where monarchs lay their eggs – as well as pesticide and herbicide use and climate change all pose a threat to species migration, experts say.
Illegal logging also continues to plague the reserves, and Peña said there are plans to place National Guard troops in the reserve to prevent this.
But the number of open illegal logging fell by 3.4% this year, mainly due to the efforts of residents to protect their forests, which led to a change in the attitude of many.
On Jan. 23, for example, Crecencio Morales Communal Farm – once the worst illegal logging area – fielded its first class of trained and officially approved rangers.
The 58-man “Community Guard” forester Crecencio Morales began life years ago as a motley gang of farmers armed with a variety of weapons before the state government offered to train and arm them.
The community struggle began in the early 2000s as residents fought to kick out drug dealers and illegal loggers and redeem themselves in the process.
“Back in 1998, the people of Crecencio Morales decided to set fire to monarch butterfly colonies to cut down the land,” recalls Erasmo Alvarez Castillo, leader of the community, or ejido, of farmers in the village.
Residents quickly realized two things: illegal logging had led to drug cartels invading, and surrounding communities were making money from tourism.
Therefore, since about 2000, farmers have begun reforestation of the mountain slopes. But they still had to drive out the drug gangs. It was a long and intense struggle that eventually forced the farmers to take up arms after calls to the police for help protecting the community went unanswered.
The situation came to a head when the city declared itself an autonomous self-governing municipality.
Faced with armed rebellious farmers, the government decided to try to professionalize the local forces and train them to defend the forests.
Now that the butterflies are back, the village can dream of attracting tourists.
“The land we have on top of the mountain is very beautiful. It would be good for a tourist site,” Alvarez Castillo said. “The plan is to make trails, put up huts – a tourist site, without destroying the environment.” ___
Solis reported from Cresensio Morales, Mexico.