The magic of the monarch migration from Canada through the U.S. and on to Mexico (and then back north over multiple generations) continues to be in existential jeopardy. Destruction of monarch habitats in Mexico initiated the threat to the iconic butterfly. But it’s no longer a crisis that gringos can blame solely on the illegal logging I witnessed in Michoacan, where monarchs overwinter. That’s why when Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Prime Minster Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to meet in Toluca for one of their periodic summit conferences – close to the Monarch breeding grounds – monarch aficionados and preservationists hoped the trio would add monarch survival to the agenda.
Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed. The caterpillars and butterflies those eggs eventually become feed on milkweed, filling up on a poison in the weed that makes them unpalatable for most potential predators. Monarchs only eat milkweed. All indicators suggest that if we kill off the milkweed we kill off the black and orange wonders that flutter through our summers, those stained glass signifiers of lightheartedness and rebirth. And we are killing off the milkweed.
Across Canada and the U.S. milkweed is disappearing in direct proportion to the planting of massive amounts of acreage with genetically modified corn and soybeans. These GMO monsters – creations of the easy-to-target-as-evil Monsanto – tolerate well another product of the global chemical industry: glyphosate (another product of Monsanto’s laboratories), the herbicide well known by its Monsanto trade name Roundup. Farmers keep insects off their GMO corn and soybeans with glyphosate. The corn and soybeans thrive. But the adjacent milkweed withers, turns brown and dies.
Corn and soybeans often are planted fence line to fence line, leaving little opportunity for milkweed to find poison-free zones to call home. In the couple of decades since GMOs and Roundup facilitated the switch from amber waves of grain to row after row of corn and soybeans, the monarch count collapsed from over a billion overwintering in Mexico to just over thirty million.
When I visited the monarch homeland in Michoacan I spent time with Jose Luis Alvarez Alcala and Ed Rashin, two desperados who operate the nonprofit La Cruz Habitat Protection Project. Their goal is to reforest land around the monarch grounds in an effort to discourage log poachers from stealing trees the monarchs call home – now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We rode in Ed’s jalopy Ford Explorer into those mountains, through land scarred from slash-and-burn logging, heading up to check on saplings the two planted. The old Explorer overheated and Ed managed to get it stuck in the muddy, rutted excuse for a road.
That’s when I witnessed a bizarre example of the at-times-symbiotic relationships amongst the divergent players in the monarchs’ midst. While we studied the stranded truck, a motely gang of poachers appeared, leading a couple of horses. Poles from newly felled trees were hanging off the backs of the horses, about ten on each, poles some thirty feet long that were healthy trees just hours earlier. Few words were exchanged. The poachers produced a rope, tied it to the front bumper and pulled on it as Ed gave the cooled-off Explorer gas. The tires grabbed and the truck was back on dry ground. The poachers unhooked their rope and headed off with their booty.
Monarch advocates hope that more than a few words are exchanged between Nieto, Harper and Obama about the plight of the butterflies. This month a posse of monarch scientists and artists co-authored a letter to the three politicians urging milkweed remediation across North America. Conservationist authors Peter Mathiessen and Bill McKibben are among the signatories. “The monarch butterfly is literally being starved to death,” they cry out in the letter.” The group calls for buffer zones between crops, zones planted with milkweed, along with further milkweed planting along roadsides. “We need a milkweed corridor stretching along the entire migratory route of the monarch,” they write.
Bland official word out of the White House suggested butterflies were not on the Toluca meeting agenda. “At the summit, the president looks forward to discussing with Mexican President Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Harper a range of issues important to the daily lives of all of North America's people,” announced spokesman Jay Carney, “including economic competitiveness, entrepreneurship, trade and investment, and citizen security.”
The cool, nonspecific language was a reminder that from the Keystone pipeline to drug trafficking to immigration, the three national leaders represent interests as divergent as those of the tree planters and the tree poachers I encountered in the mountains near Toluca. With luck, the plea in the letter Mathiessen and McKibben signed will bring Nieto, Harper and Obama together to save that milagro common denominator their three countries share: the monarch.
Peter Laufer is James Wallace Chair Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and and author of The Dangerous World of Butterflies.