The Monarch Butterflies
Chain Saw Thins Flocks of Migrants on Gold Wings
By James C. Mckinley Jr.
CONTEPEC, Mexico - Homero Aridjis, a poet and naturalist, can remember years when monarch butterflies filled the streets here in his hometown like a living torrent of orange and black and stayed all winter on the fir-covered mountain rising above the village.
Not this year. The colony of butterflies that arrived here in November was tiny and retreated up the mountain, as far away as possible from the lower slopes where loggers have thinned or destroyed the forest the butterflies depend on.
"There used to be rivers of butterflies, but now there are years when there are no butterflies at all ... This is a village full of ghosts, not of people, but of nature, a paradise lost."
The number [of butterflies] arriving this winter was the smallest since Mexico and the World Wildlife Fund began keeping records in the 1970's, down three-quarters from the winter before.
Biologists ... warn that logging in Mexico and herbicides in the United States have endangered these almost miraculously migratory insects, which flutter thousands of miles.
Hardier genetically altered corn and soybean crops in the United States and Canada ... have enabled farmers to use stronger herbicides to eliminate weeds. That has drastically depleted the supply of flowers on which the butterflies feed, as well as common milkweed, on which the monarch lays its eggs in the spring and summer and on which its larvae feed, several biologists say.
Some environmentalists say that preventing permanent devastation of the monarch population might require concerted action by Mexico, the United States and Canada, though these countries have not put the issue on their foreign affairs agendas.
In August ... the monarchs fly south to the forested hills in Michoacán and the State of Mexico, where their ancestors have spent winter for millennia. ... in March, they return to the southern United States to lay their fertilized eggs and die.
In Mexico, illegal logging in these protected forests has shrunk the monarchs' habitat and forced the insects to higher elevations, where they are vulnerable to the cold.
Satellite photos compiled by United States scientists show that vast numbers of trees in the 140,000-acre Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve , 75 miles east of Mexico City, have been logged and carted out, often by armed gangs who pay off the authorities ... The northeast face of Cerro Pelón, one of the mountains in the core of the reserve and a former winter home of butterflies, is stripped of trees now.
Lincoln P. Brower, ... one of the world's foremost Monarch specialists, said the population had been cut so severely that one more bad storm over the winter might have finished it.
... Martin Uilshes Maya, 35, a farmer from Contepec who loves the butterflies, is typical of many people in the region. He said he had 10 acres of land to feed his wife and two children. He grows enough corn and wheat to make about $3,600 a year, but the need for firewood sometimes drives him and his neighbors into the forest.
"Clearly, we are destroying the forest, but that is what life is giving us," he said sadly.
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