photo by Flickr user Bud
If you happen to be anywhere near Carmel or Monterey, California in the next several weeks, I highly recommend a detour to the chic community of Pacific Grove. It’s near the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links, but my advice has nothing to do with golf.
Pacific Grove is home to one of the largest and most accessible monarch butterfly sanctuaries in the United States. In the cool of the evening, thousands of insects will cluster together in the eucalyptus, cypress and pine trees. On mild and sunny afternoons, the butterflies will flit around the parklike preserve in search of nourishing nectar.
But in a few weeks, as the weather warms, the monarchs in Pacific Grove and at dozens of other wintering grounds on the California coast will mate and begin their annual migration north toward Canada. They will cover thousands of miles, sometimes flying over a mile high, to reach their summer habitat. Several generations of butterflies will be born and die before the next cohort – specially adapted for the migration and long months of winter semi-dormancy – returns to the same patches of forest that their forebears used.
It is a remarkable sight and a fascinating story, revered by conservationists, schoolchildren and average citizens alike. Hardly anyone would think of disturbing the California butterflies. Anyone who did could expect near-certain prosecution and stiff fines.
California’s wintering grounds serve monarch populations west of the Continental Divide. But monarchs are widely distributed. The population east of the Rockies needs a similar winter habitat that is reliably cool and coniferous, but never freezing. This set of conditions is almost nonexistent in the central and eastern states, where flatter terrain allows occasional frigid air masses to penetrate all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. So those eastern monarchs face an even longer journey, to the highlands around Mexico City, to find the habitat they need to survive.
More than half of the eastern monarch population finds that habitat in Michoacan and the surrounding areas. The fir and pine forests in Michoacan state are just as good for the monarchs, and perhaps even better, than the wintering grounds on the Pacific coast. But they are not nearly as peaceful.
In recent weeks, two of the butterflies’ protectors have been found dead in the monarchs’ legally established refuge. Officials announced that Raul Hernandez Romeron, a guide at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, had been slain based on wounds found on his body. Hernandez Romeron’s remains were found days after those of Homero Gomez Gonzalez. Gomez Gonzalez was a prominent activist who opposed illegal logging operations that could threaten the butterflies’ habitat. An autopsy revealed that Gomez Gonzalez drowned after receiving a head wound. At this writing, investigations into both men’s deaths are ongoing. It is not known if the deaths are connected.
There are all sorts of criminal gangs operating with impunity in many parts of Mexico. The murder rate in the country for 2019 may have been the highest ever recorded, according to a recent report from the BBC. We usually associate gang activities, and the related violence, with drug smuggling and gun running. But in the case of the monarch butterflies, it is the benign-sounding practice of avocado farming that has come under suspicion. The same reliably mild weather that attracts the butterflies to the Michoacan highlands turns out to be excellent for raising the fruit that is the key ingredient in the country’s famed guacamole. The butterfly reserve, which includes El Rosario sanctuary, is legally protected from agricultural use. But clandestine clear-cutting to create avocado orchards – as well as the illegal logging Gomez Gonzalez condemned – pose a threat to the area.
As is the case in many less-developed parts of the world, when the habitat needs of wildlife collide with the subsistence or commercial interests of humans, it is usually the wildlife that suffers. Sometimes it is their allies, too.
Mexican authorities have their hands more than full trying to stem the atrocious levels of violence in their towns and on their highways. Having a global audience focusing on the emerging butterfly war may keep some law enforcement attention on those forested mountains for a while longer, but I am not optimistic about solving these crimes. And I fear for the butterflies too.
Despite the sanctuary in Pacific Grove and other efforts to protect critical habitat in California, the western population of monarchs has crashed to critical levels in recent decades. In a state where millions of insects spent the winters in the 1980s, this year’s survey estimated only 29,000 butterflies made it. The population east of the Rockies seems to be doing better at the moment, but the trends in Mexico are troubling. The monarchs also face serious challenges beyond the wintering grounds, as drought and habitat loss impede their ability to thrive in northern locales as well.
At least those creatures lucky enough to get free municipal housing in Pacific Grove will be protected, along with their winter home. They are the fortunate ones of their species, and we who can enjoy them in peace and security are the fortunate ones of our own.