Protect the Monarch Butterfly Forest!

An intact forest canopy shelters the monarch colonies from bad weather and extreme temperatures by providing them with a protective microclimate.

My brother-in-law Patricio, or Pato as we call him, used to have a wonderful job, working as a forest ranger in the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. Every winter millions of monarch butterflies migrate from as far away as Canada to cluster in a few acres of our area forests. From November to March of every year, Pato got to spend every day in the presence of this magnificent multitude. But then in April of this year, he and his two co-workers were indefinitely transferred to another site. This administrative decision leaves the butterfly forest on Cerro Pelon completely unprotected.

Pato and his family fear that the absence of paid personnel in the forest will leave illegal loggers free to ravage the monarchs’ roost. And indeed, we visited the forest yesterday, and that is exactly what is happening. We counted more than 30 trees that had been cut down in the core protected area since the rangers stopped patrolling. Click here to sign our petition to Bring the Rangers Back.

Thinning the forest canopy: Monarchs used to form colonies in this area of Cerro Pelon called El Oyamel at the beginning of the season. It is unlikely that they will be able to next season. In early June clandestine loggers took out 20 oyamel trees in one fell swoop. These small scale, low budget loggers work with axes and horses and sell the trees for roof beams.
Who’s in charge and why did they move the rangers? you may ask. Jurisdiction is kind of a tricky issue here. After the monarch colonies were first discovered on Cerro Pelon in 1975, a local elite named Jesus Avila convinced the government of the State of Mexico to hire people from the village of Macheros to work as forest rangers in the sanctuary. One of these workers was my father-in-law, Melquiades Moreno de Jesus. His employer eventually became La Commission Estatal de Parques Naturales y Fauna, better known by the acronym CEPANAF.

Don Jesus convinced CEPANAF to create these positions at an interesting moment in the history of work. Worldwide, secure employment with pensions and benefits were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The rangers he got hired were the first and so far the only men in our village to benefit from secure, full-time employment.

In the decades to come, no other agency involved in monarch conservation in Mexico has been willing to permanently hire local people to work in forest protection.

Instead, the impoverished campesinos who share the Biosphere Reserve with the butterflies are given once-annual “financial incentives” and temporary work brigades. Neither of these strategies has effectively halted the clandestine logging that continues to peck away at the monarchs’ protective forest canopy. But where the CEPANAF rangers worked, on the State of Mexico side of Cerro Pelon, there is a visible difference in tree cover. State of Mexico side: forest. Michoacán side: stubbly new growth.

Retired CEPANAF Ranger Melquiades Moreno stands in front of trees he planted on the Michoacan side of the sanctuary during his 30 year-long career.

An administrative reorganization in 1986 removed the Cerro Pelon sanctuary from the CEPANAF portfolio. That year, the area where the monarchs roost was re-designated the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which is a federal agency under the auspices of Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Areas. At that point, CEPANAF stopped charging entries to Cerro Pelon. Instead, the Biosphere Reserve grants a concession to the local community for the right to sell tickets. Despite this reclassification, the CEPANAF rangers stayed on the job on Cerro Pelon. And when Melquiades and his cohort retired in 2014, each was able to appoint one of his sons as his successor.

For the last three years Pato and his coworkers rode horses up Cerro Pelon on a rotating five-day-a-week schedule. They watched to see where the butterflies roosted, tracked the colony’s movements, told the guides where to find them, and set up a perimeter around the roost to keep tourists from getting too close. They also recorded and reported the illegal logging that continues to plague the core protected area. As long as they were there, no one logged in front of them, but still sometimes people snuck in at night to take trees down. Now that they’re gone, no one has to wait until nightfall.

Pato in his CEPANAF uniform guarding the Cerro Pelon monarch colony.

For a long time there were rumors that CEPANAF wanted to relocate the rangers, because they were patrolling a park that earned nothing for the agency. These rumors were finally realized this April. The rangers were sent to charge admissions at a popular waterfall park a few hours down the road from us. And in the meantime, officials from CEPANAF came to repossess the horses the rangers had been given to negotiate the rough terrain of Cerro Pelon.

Pato’s four-year-old cried when he saw his dad’s horse taken away. Pato restrained himself, but when he explained to me what was happening he used the word “sad” repeatedly. It’s not his job he’s worried about, he said.

As his employer, CEPANAF has the right to transfer him wherever they want. But, Pato says, they should send someone to take care of Cerro Pelon. Otherwise, that will be the end of the trees there, and the end of the monarch colony. And that would be una tristeza.

I don’t think his boss realizes how much monarchs and the migration mean to people around the world. Many are moved to tears by the sight of millions of monarchs nestled half way up the steep slopes of Cerro Pelon. Some people come here to propose marriage, others to scatter ashes. Still others mark life transitions like changing careers, surviving cancer, or ending a relationship. My first visit to Cerro Pelon’s monarch colony marked the beginning of a transition that entailed both a marriage proposal and a career change. That day was the beginning of making monarchs, my love for them and the loving family that they brought me the centerpiece of my life.

The village behind the this newly engaged couple is Macheros. Cerro Pelon is the highest peak just visible in the upper right corner. Photo by Alec Watson.
I hope I’ve conveyed some of this passion in the petition I helped write to the director of CEPANAF and to her boss, the current governor of the state of Mexico, as well as the governor-elect. We’ve also addressed this plea to UNESCO, which declared the monarchs’ overwintering colonies a World Heritage Site back in 2008. The preservation of the monarch migration and their winter home is an issue that transcends one small state agency. Surely there are resources available somewhere to continue to cover at least three full-time rangers for Cerro Pelon.

In answer to the valid point that the park no longer belongs to CEPANAF, I would say that in fact, as part of the patrimony of humanity, the monarch colonies belong to everybody. And who better to continue to take care of them than the agency that has quietly and effectively protected them since their discovery.

Thank you for taking a moment to sign and share the petition!

Postscript January 2018: The Return the Rangers petition gathered more than 2,000 signatures and the CEPANAF rangers were re-posted to Cerro Pelon shortly thereafter, in early July 2017. In their nearly 4 month-long absence, nearly 300 trees were logged in the core protected area. Illegal logging dropped off again after they went back to work, and in September we were able to send them re-enforcements, three forest arborists we hired through our non-profit Butterflies & Their People, a project supported by the Monarch Butterfly Fund. Now six full-time workers patrol the butterfly mountain on a daily basis. They have not reported any illegal logging incidents since the started.

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