Saving the monarch butterfly

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 20, 2014 

A Monarch butterfly sits on a tree trunk at the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary in the mountains of Mexico's Michoacan state.

MARCO UGARTE — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Chalk one up for the lowly monarch butterfly.

The monarch earned a mention yesterday at the summit between the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada.

“We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said at the conclusion of the one-day summit.

Sure enough, there in the final declaration, amid weighty statements on energy, immigration, border security and job creation, the monarch butterfly earned its place:

"We will continue to collaborate in the protection of our region’s biodiversity and to address other environmental challenges, such as wildlife trafficking and ecosystems at risk. Our governments will establish a working group to ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly, a species that symbolizes our association."

The high-level attention to the monarch comes amid a crisis. The butterflies migrate each year from the grasslands of the United States and Canada down to the volcanic fir-covered mountains of central Mexico. But the population of monarchs wintering in Mexico has plummeted from a high of 1.1 billion in 1996 to a pitiful 33 million this year.

In past years, the fir trees in the monarch preserves of the states of Michoacan and Mexico practically sag from the number of butterflies alit upon them.

Experts believe the huge drop in monarchs is partly because the butterfly is being starved to death. Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat. But relentless spraying of herbicides in North America is wiping out once plentiful milkweed. Small-scale illegal logging is also destroying the fir forest canopy in Mexico that the butterflies use as their wintering grounds. Environmentalists are distraught.

More than 100 scientists and environmentalists wrote to Pena Nieto, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama prior to the summit, calling on them to establish a “milkweed corridor” through the three countries. It calls for the massive planting of milkweed along roadsides and toxin-free buffer zones.

A top environmental group, the World Wildlife Fund, hailed the move by the three leaders. “This butterfly migration reflects an ancient bond between three nations that pre-date the countries themselves. Business as usual may permanently sever this bond, but today's pledge gives us renewed hope that we can save the monarch migration for centuries to come,” said Carter Roberts, president of World Wildlife Fund.

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