Monarch Conservation Efforts for Naught?

Dead monarchs blown from their roosts in Mexico’s March 2016 storm.

I feel like I am turning into the Cassandra of the mountains of Mexico, delivering news about its monarch butterfly sanctuaries that no one wants to hear. The thousands of people in the US and Canada involved in monarch conservation would like to think that just as much effort is going into protecting their habitat in Mexico. Thus, many greeted the latest news on logging and monarch mortality in the sanctuaries with dismay. I’m here to tell you that however bad those numbers may have sounded, the reality is quite a bit bleaker. But bear with me, there is a simple solution to Mexico’s conservation woes.

The charismatic monarch migration has attracted the attention of many North Americans, who are raising and releasing monarchs, creating pollinator gardens, and planting milkweed, the only plant monarchs can lay their eggs on. These efforts are meant to ensure that the monarchs’ annual 3,500 mile journey from Ontario to a few acres of Mexico’s Sierra Madres continues. The loss of milkweed and wildflowers to agroindustry and development has reduced the size of overwintering colonies in Mexico by some 90% over the last 20 years, putting this natural wonder in danger of extinction. Unfortunately, destruction of monarch habitat north of the Rio Grande is only half of the story.

Before the storm: Monarchs sunning on an oyamel, Cerro Pelon. Photo by Dana Hutchison.

From November to March every year, monarchs roost by the millions in high altitude conifer forests in central Mexico. Uncontrolled logging thins the forest canopy and leaves the colonies vulnerable in the event of inclement weather. And inclement weather is just what the colonies got on March 9, 2016, when they were pelted with ice and subjected to several days of freezing temperatures. The August 23, 2016 press release from the World Wildlife Foundation-Mexico asserted that 7.4% of the colony died in this severe weather event. It also announced that 49.17 acres of trees were destroyed in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve last year.

If that sound like a lot, the truth is much worse. Other experts place the storm mortality rates between 30–50%. And as those of us who actually enter the forest know, logging continues unabated, and only a fraction of this damage made it into the official report.

On paper, forest conservation efforts are a success. On the ground, they are failing. In order for effective conservation of the monarch forest to happen, people who care about the migration need to stop taking official propaganda about the health of the butterfly forest at face value.

First, the Bad News

All data collection in Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is conducted by the local branch of the WWF and their corporate co-sponsor Telcel. This coalition is charged with issuing an annual report on the logging situation as well as with making the annual estimate of the size of the overwintering colony. The logging count they produce seems to be based solely on aerial photographs. The report claims that investigators supplemented this data with actual visits to the forest, but if they did, the report would have to include the small scale ant logging that is also eating away at the forest density. Instead, the official report only counts clearcutting visible from the air.

Not visible from the air: Ant logging. Poor people cut down trees with axes and drag them away with horses. Each tree fetches 350–400 pesos.

The undercounting of logging has material effects: these numbers are used to calculate payments for the Fondo Monarca. This fund compensates select members of Reserve communities for giving up their right to engage in timber extraction on what were once their communal lands. What happens in practice is, people receive the payments and continue to cut trees. The inaccurate logging report means that there is no accountability built into this program. Payments for ecological services programs like Fondo Monarca only work if its participants are actually held accountable for their actions.

Forest floor, Cerro Pelon, after March 9 storm. Researchers were not allowed to enter the El Rosario Sanctuary, where mortality rates are thought to have been higher.

The failure of Fondo Monarca to safeguard the forest was made abundantly clear by the impact of the March storm. You can blame climate change, but in addition to underscoring that increasingly undeniable fact, this freak storm revealed the extent to which forest quality in the Reserve has already been degraded. There were not enough old growth trees left to protect the monarch colonies, and they froze in place on the tree trunks and in their clusters on the relatively young trees that were available to them.

Since then, that natural disaster has been compounded by a man-made one. The Mexican government gave local communities official permission to haul out the trees downed by the storm. While they were at it, salvage loggers nabbed healthy trees as well. How many remains unquantified. Most of this process got underway after the May 2016 aerial photograph used to make the report that was just released; it will be interesting to see next year how salvage logging and its collateral damage is characterized in the annual logging report. Will the WWF-Telcel Alliance have to add a new color to the legend of their map to indicate “legalized plunder”?

What can be done

Frustrating, right? I think would throw up my hands and give up completely if I didn’t love the monarch migration and my adopted Mexican family and community here at the base of the butterfly mountain as much as I do. Also, their experiences have convinced me that there is an effective action to be taken to safeguard the butterfly forest and the migration it hosts. Habitat loss in the Reserve is caused by illegal logging. Illegal logging is caused by economic desperation. Employing local people to protect the forest addresses both issues. There is already a forest ranger program in place in our community. It has lifted three families out of poverty and protected the forest to boot. This program needs to be expanded.

I’ve blogged about this idea before. Since then we’ve been helped and encouraged by numerous fellow monarch enthusiasts to turn this plan into a funding proposal. (If you’re reading this, thank you!) Despite these collective efforts, no funding has been forthcoming. There seem to be several conceptual obstacles in our way, which can be summarized as five frequently asked questions.

  1. Shouldn’t the Mexican government take care of Mexican forests? Sure, that would be nice. But if we wait for the political will to form in Mexico to actually protect the Reserve, instead of just issuing press releases saying they are, it will be too late to save the migration.
Politicians participate in a Fondo Monarca photo opportunity.

2. Isn’t there an effective payment for ecological services program in place? As mentioned above, Fondo Monarca is just another example of saying you’re doing something, and then not actually doing it. Checks are handed out and photographs are taken. And then illegal logging continues apace. The strategy of once annual hand-outs to a handful of patriarchs has failed to safeguard the forest for the last 16 years. It’s time to try a new approach.

3. But what about all those reforestation efforts? A related WWF press release boasts of planting 10.73 million trees on the Reserve over the last 12 years. It does not mention what the survival rates are for these saplings, because those it seems are numbers no one bothers to collect. I suspect that many of them die, because no one who seems to know much about forestry is involved in the process, which means that the wrong species may be planted at the wrong altitude at the wrong time of year. But no matter, because there’s always more funding available the next year for more reforestation.

Elementary school tree nursery in Cresencio Morales. Photo by Turk Pipkin.

While the reforestation racket has made a handful of tree nursery magnates rich, this industry does not provide long-term year-round employment for locals. Even if it did, it will take decades for these little saplings to grow to the point where they provide an adequately protective microclimate for monarchs. Why, I wonder, are funders more invested in reforestation than in protecting the forest we already have?

4. Isn’t confronting illegal loggers dangerous? In the 30 plus years that forest rangers have patrolled Cerro Pelon, they have never had a confrontation with loggers. Loggers are poor people, just like them. They are not confrontational, and they do not log when other people are around. Which is why we believe that increasing the presence of personnel in the forest reduces clandestine logging.

5. Isn’t employing full-time workers is too much of a responsibility and not cost-effective? It would be a commitment. But from what we’ve seen, committing to workers means that they in turn commit to protecting the forest. If we actually had an accurate account of logging and forest health, it would become obvious that the current conservation model is not in fact cost-effective. Instead of a small once-annual payment of a few hundred dollars to a few hundred people, this funding could be used to employ a dozen people year round in meaningful work protecting the forest.

To that end, we put together a basic budget that employs two fulltime rangers for $25,000 USD a year and applied for funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Monarch Conservation Project. As it turned out, NFWF funded only two projects in Mexico in this round: they are giving $25,000 to a branch of a big NGO to plant 10 pollinator gardens on the monarch migration route through Mexico, and $50,000 to another group to give workshops to increase “leadership capacity” in Reserve communities. Gardens and workshops. But no jobs for local people.

The remaining $2,973,887 went to habitat restoration and capacity building projects north of the border. Of course, critical habitat must be restored and maintained along the entire monarch migratory corridor. However, the entire eastern monarch population roosts in Mexico on just a few acres of land for a third of the year. This proximity is what makes seeing the migration in Mexico so magnificent, and also what renders the monarch colonies so vulnerable. As monarch activist Darlene Burgess (Monarch Waystation #10275) points out, we can plant all the milkweed we like, but if we don’t protect their overwintering grounds, the monarch migration doesn’t stand a chance.

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