March 1, 2016   |   Carey Wedler
March 1, 2016
(ANTIMEDIA) Environmental officials and experts are cautiously celebrating a recent rise in the monarch butterfly population, which has suffered a stark decline in recent years due to a variety of factors. The population of monarchs who made their annual trip to Mexico this past December increased three-and-a-half times from the previous year, but the totals are still far below those from two decades ago.
“This December, the butterflies covered 10 acres (about 4 hectares), compared to 2.8 acres (1.13 hectares) in 2014 and a record low of 1.66 acres (0.67 hectares) in 2013.”
Because monarch butterflies clump together densely under forest canopies when they arrive in Mexico, they are measured by the amount of land they cover rather than the individual number of insects. Researchers were optimistic at the end of 2014, when the number of acres they occupied started to rebound, and are pleased they rebounded even more this year.
In Mexico, the biggest threat to butterflies has been illegal logging in their protected habitat. Though unlawful logging had fallen drastically by 2011 as a result of efforts from local communities, it had tripled by 2014. As of August 2015, 49 acres of butterfly habitat had been destroyed by illegal logging. Much of that logging was conducted by local residents facing poverty and selling wood from their land. Drought, pests, lightning, and landslides were also blamed for increased deforestation.
The monarch butterfly uses the forest canopy as protection from the cold, and without it, many can’t survive.
In late 2015, illegal logging was still an issue, but the practices — which authorities have attempted to clamp down on — apparently have not harmed the butterflies’ resurgence, even if they haven’t helped it. The Center for Biological Diversity noted this might be related to more favorable weather conditions:
“[T]he population was expected to be up this winter due to favorable summer weather conditions in the monarch’s U.S. breeding areas,” the environmental organization said.
The uptick may also be because of efforts within the United States to revive milkweed, a plant the monarchs depend upon as they make their annual trek to Mexico. Milkweed serves as the host plant for monarch caterpillars, but it has been largely wiped out due to various environmental factors.
As the Xerces Society, an organization focused on preserving invertebrates, explained, “Agricultural intensification, development of rural lands, and the use of mowing and herbicides to control roadside vegetation have all reduced the abundance of milkweeds in the landscape.”
As the Washington Post reported in August of last year:
“Nearly a billion have vanished since 1990 as farmers and homeowners sprayed herbicides on milkweed, a plant the colorful creatures use as a food source, a home and a nursery.”
The Post reported in February of last year that only about 30 million remained.
Xerces also cited a shortage of milkweed seeds as a cause for depletion of the butterfly population. The lack of milkweed sparked a collaborative effort that employed the Monarch Joint Venture, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant, and private foundations. In collaboration with the native seed industry, the USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Program and the Xerces Society have worked to restore milkweed in areas that coincide with the monarch butterfly migration route to Mexico. States include California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida. The Great Basin has also been a focus of the milkweed project.
Further, last year President Obama called for a thousand-mile highway corridor from Mexico to Minnesota to be populated with milkweed, also allocating funds to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department as part of a broader strategy to assist bee and other pollinator populations.
Dan Ashe, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently said authorities had “managed to restore about 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares) of milkweed, and raised about $20 million for the program.”
Alejandro del Mazo, head of Mexico’s protected areas, estimated there were 140 million butterflies this year and suggested they are on track to reach a 2020 goal of 220 million on the reserve. Even so, butterfly populations are still only at 68 percent of their 22-year average.
Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “The increase is certainly great news, but the bottom line is that monarchs must reach a much larger population size to be resilient to ever-increasing threats.” Indeed, while the 10 acres this year are promising, in 1996, at their peak, monarchs covered 44 acres.
“It is time for celebration because we see the beginning of success,” Ashe said. “But our task now is to continue building on that success.“
Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, said, “The news is good, but at the same time we shouldn’t let our guard down. Now more than ever, Mexico, the United States, and Canada should increase their conservation efforts to protect and restore the habitat of this butterfly along its migratory route.”
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