Peter Laufer, James Wallace Chair Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, is the author of The Dangerous World of Butterflies and Up Against the Wall: The Case for Opening the Mexican-U.S. Border.
Two heroes who worked hard to help keep our North American spring season alive with magical monarch butterflies have been found dead in Mexico. Homero Gomez, founder of a monarch reserve high in the mountains of Michoacan, disappeared last month. His beaten, drowned body was discovered about a week later. Two days after his funeral, monarch sanctuary tour guide Raul Hernandez’s body was found with a brutal head wound. Both activists were found dead in the wilds, among the butterflies they loved and protected. There are suspicions that their deaths are linked to the conflict between conservationists and illegal loggers.
The lovely fluttering insects would disappear without migration to their Mexican homes. The North American monarchs living east of the Continental Divide end their summers like snowbirds: they migrate south, most to remote mountaintops in Mexico where they hibernate en masse – millions jammed together per acre until the Mexican spring sun warms and wakes them. They mate and head north. Unlike the direct flight south, the return trip takes a few generations to reach as far north as Canada. Those monarchs that made the flight south and overwintered in Mexico make it as far as Texas and Louisiana. Egg-bearing females stay alive long enough to find the unique suitable landing for their eggs: milkweed. Milkweed nourishes their larvae, and it fills the clown-coloured caterpillars, and the orange-and-black butterflies those caterpillars eventually become, with the poison that makes them unpalatable for most potential predators. This next generation emerges from its chrysalises and continues north toward the Great Lakes where they lay their eggs. Their offspring finish the journey to New England and Ontario.
This is an annual event: Multiple short-lived generations trek north to light up our lives and then the Mexico-bound generation makes the epic flight back to Michoacan. How they know the route to their ancestral home remains a phenomenal mystery.
The forested heights of the Sierra Madre are integral to the monarch life cycle. These mountains were made famous in the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre starring Humphrey Bogart. It was Bogart’s character who asked a Mexican bandit posing as a policeman to show his badge. “Badges?” was the classic retort, “We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badges.” That type of lawlessness is a reality that plagues the monarch overwintering grounds today.
The oyamel fir trees monarchs prefer for their winter perch thrive in the Sierra Madre. Much of their territory is officially protected from logging. It is a Mexican government reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But the vast forested landscape is poorly policed and alive with timber poachers. When I visited, I encountered a gang of tree thieves. Their two horses were dragging cut logs. The outlaws were unconcerned about being discovered. Were the local police on the take? In a country where gang violence is endemic, where journalists are routinely killed to censor them, where so many criminals enjoy impunity from prosecution, these loggers brazenly plied their trade.
Habitat loss in Mexico is not the only threat to our iconic monarchs. In Canada and the United States, we are guilty of embracing essentially a monoculture with fenceline-to-fenceline farming tactics. Arable land is cultivated leaving little room for wild milkweed that monarchs depend on for their survival to grow. Worse, Roundup Ready soybean (a genetically modified crop) and corn mean that what little milkweed manages to cohabitate with these crops is susceptible to sprayed herbicide. In recent years, the monarch population has dropped precipitously and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering adding it to the endangered species list.
The threats to monarchs are many and complex.
Monarch conservationists assume Mr. Gomez and Mr. Hernandez died while protecting these majestic creatures – both had been threatened, warned to end their anti-illegal logging activism. Greed and desperation (some of poachers steal logs to keep their families fed) threaten more than the lovely sight of monarchs fluttering around our homes and gardens: the butterflies are important pollinators.
Despite national boundaries, we live in a borderless world. The monarchs don’t know the difference between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Donald Trump or Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The current fragile survival of our monarchs is just one more example of why those of us north of the Rio Grande should work with Mexico in its continuing fight against lawlessness and corruption.
Meanwhile, bribed police working with poaching syndicates denude forests for a quick peso while dedicated preservationists working with limited resources try to protect the butterflies and their habitat. Compounding the crisis is the endemic poverty that plagues Michoacan, driving mom-and-pop poachers to gather trees for heat, cooking fuel and clothes.
Such complex problems rarely find solutions with quick fixes. But raising awareness of what’s at risk is an important start. Supporting Mexico-based butterfly conservation efforts is a valuable first step; a few dollars buys a lot in the Sierra Madre. We should never succumb to a response that mimics Bogart: “Monarchs? We don’t need no monarchs. I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ monarchs.”
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