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The Dark Side of the Monarch

beckycarlberg

Shawnee News-Star Weekender Feb. 22nd 2020

Monarch butterflies on Milkweed flowers

Becky Emerson Carlberg

The state of Michoacan, Mexico, lies in the mountains ofcentral Mexico and extends to the west coast. El Rosario Sanctuary at 138,379 acres is the largest and most popular inthe Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Millions of monarchs migrate from the United States to spend October toMarch in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt pine-oak forests ecoregion. Sayagain?  The reserve has the highestelevations in the state with some peaks over 2,700 meters (8,000 feet) abovesea level. The mountains have a northeast-southwest orientation.  Although the climate is temperate, there arecool/ semi moist, semi cold/ semi moist, and cold/ semi moist sub-climates. 

Outcrops of basalt (igneous rock created from the rapidcooling of magnesium-iron rich lava at surface level) form fissures andcliffs.  The soil readily soaks up waterbut some ponds and dry creek banks which fill after rains exist. The rich, diversemixture of trees form thick forests and scattered islands of timber throughout themountain ranges of Central and South America. The Aile (Alnus acuminata) is birch tree that loves high altitudes between5,000 to10,000 feet.  Greater than tenspecies of oaks, five species of pines plus white cedars, cypresses and oyameltrees in particular thrive in this region.

Oyemel (Abies religiosa) is a fir tree native to the cloud forests in the Mexican mountains.   The drought-resistant tall tree that reaches over 160 feet in height loves high rainfall, cool humid summers and dry winters.   The forests provide protection and shelter during winter rains and cold snaps.   Scientists are worried that the very important oyamel fir could shrink or disappear by the end of this century due to climate change.  

Conifer similar to the Oyamel Fir

Fourteen major butterfly colonies are located in thesemountains"over half the colonies of the monarch population in the eastern USand Canada.  You're talking millions ofbutterflies overwintering each year.  Theweight of so many butterflies cause the fir branches to droop.  Colonies are dense.  Eight of the fourteen are in the protectedbiosphere.  Defugalties arise betweenlocals, farmers, or communities. Deforestation and illegal logging to clear land for avocado and fruit orchards,tourism run amok, forest fires, mining for copper and silver, and lack ofinfrastructure have seriously affected monarch habitats. The area isimpoverished.  Money comes fromharvesting trees for timber and planting potatoes or wheat, not ecotourism orpreservation.  Michoacan is Mexico'slargest supplier of avocadoes. 

Butterfly conservationist and sanctuary manager Homero GomezGonzalez fought endlessly for the El Rosario Sanctuary.  He called the monarchs 'a marvel of nature.'Gomez disappeared Jan. 13th 2020 and his body was found 2 weekslater in the bottom of a watering hole. He had received blunt trauma to the head.  Days later, Raul Romero, a tour guide at ElRosario was found covered in bruises and very dead from a deep wound to hishead. No official leads. Logging has been banned in the butterfly sanctuariesin Michoacan.  Illegal loggers andconservationists have been at odds with each other for years. 

Another theory is a drug cartel may have been involved.   Gomez had begun a large-scale reforestation program and had organized teams of guides to patrol the reserve day and night.   The official explanation is Gomez drowned.   His family believes it was murder.   Gomez knew the area in and out.   Falling into a well not even close to his normal way home is suspicious.   At his funeral, a handful of monarch butterflies flew into the church and fluttered above the congregation. According to traditional belief in Mexican culture, monarchs are souls of ancestors returning to Earth.   The butterflies' return appearance coincides with the Day of the Dead on November 2nd.  

Milkweeds releasing seeds far across Countryside Pond

The monarchs (Danausplexippus) depart the cloud forestsin March and flutter northward into the United States.  Unfortunately, many of the common milkweedshave perished due to the spraying of insecticides such as Roundup, planting RoundupReady seeds and other glorious practices in use today.  The milkweed plant is the sole food for themonarch caterpillar.  It begins its lifeas a small egg laid under the milkweed leaf. After hatching, the little larvae (caterpillars) spend two weeks eatingand molt five times to allow for rapid growth. Only about 5% of the young monarch larvae reach the last stage.  Once inside its colorful inch long jade greenchrysalis, the larva changes into a butterfly two weeks later.

The milkweed connection is significant when you realize three to four generations of monarchs are born during the migration into and out of the United States.  This amounts to a lot of milkweed.   Oklahoma is in the region where several native species grow.   Increase your odds of attracting butterflies and plant several varieties appropriate for your location. Seeds are planted in late fall. Milkweed plants go out early spring after frost date.   The following milkweeds grow best in Oklahoma:

Small Monarch caterpillar on Milkweed leaf

Antelope horn milkweed (Asclepiasasperula), Swamp milkweed (Asclepiasincarnata), Purple milkweed (Asclepiaspurpurascens), Showy milkweed (Asclepiasspeciosa), Prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), Common milkweed(Asclepias syriaca), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa; this milkweedattracts other butterflies as well), Redring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata), Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), and Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis).  Thismilkweed grows prolifically around my house.

Early in the season the striking adult monarch butterflies drink the nectar from dandelions, milkweed flowers and other earlier bloomers.   As the season progresses, they slurp flower sugar juices from buckwheat (Eriogonum), butterfly bush (Buddleia), coneflower (Echinacea), Cosmos, Coreopsis, Lantana, Salvia, and Zinnia as well as clovers, thistles goldenrods, black-eyed Susans, asters, sunflowers and ironweeds.   The monarchs may be found flitting around ripe fruit such as cut watermelons. Spring is coming fast and it is time to prepare for the returning international arrivals.

Large Monarch Caterpillar

Do your part to save the monarch and the other pollinators.  Stop using insecticidesand herbicides in your gardens. Call your city, county and state officials and ask for less aggressivemowing this spring and summer to give the milkweeds and wildflowers a chance togrow, bloom and set seeds.  We should allband together to plant living corridors of milkweeds and flowering plants tonot only support the monarchs but other insects and wildlife.

For years the National Wildlife Federation has worked with communities to help the monarch.   Recently, Harlingen TX mayor Chris Boswell became the 500th mayor to make the pledge to encourage his city to create and protect monarch habitats.   Harlingen is under the monarch migratory flyway that flows from Mexico to Canada, as we in Shawnee are.   Habitats have expanded to include public parks, roadsides, medians, gardens, back yards and open spaces.   Read about Project Milkweed at http://www.xerces.org/milkweed. Follow Monarch Watch at http://www.xerces.org/milkweed.   Track the monarch in real time on http://journeynorth.org/monarchs.  A few have already made it to the Houston area.

Meandering Creek in Winter