March 25, 2013

Monarch Migration Drops

New threats to the species have led to fewer butterflies again this year.

Shelby: At the top of a mountain in Mexico lies a hidden world filled with butterflies. They are everywhere.

Cameraman: Hey, little buddy. Little guy’s on our camera.

Shelby: More surprising than the number of these orange-winged insects is that all these monarch butterflies are on vacation. They are here to hibernate, or roost, in select forests that have the ideal living conditions during the winter cold.

Resident of Mexico: They can take up to a month-and-a-half to get here. They migrate from the south of Canada and the North and Central United States. The ones that have the longest trips, we believe they’ve traveled 2,600 miles to 2,800 miles in some cases.

Shelby: Most monarchs live about four to five weeks. But once a year, there is a super generation of monarchs who live seven or eight months. In humans, this would be like living 525 years. It is this super generation that makes the long journey down to Mexico, returning to the same trees and branches every year. And since the next journey will be made by their great-great-grandchildren, how these monarchs know exactly where to go still remains a mystery.

And while this looks like a lot of butterflies, this year’s migration is less than half the amount which came last year, a 59% decrease and the lowest in twenty years. Some of the decline over the last few years can be blamed on deforestation, cutting down trees where the butterflies live. Over the last few years, conservationists have been able to slow down the deforestation and even replant trees. And the monarch population started to come back.

Rosita: Before, people here lived off the forest and cut down trees, or they would cut firewood to sell. They thought that was the only way to survive. So what we’re doing now is training them, conducting workshops about taking care of natural resources. If they cut down one big tree, they should plant at least ten because what we want is more butterflies to keep coming.

Shelby: But the drop this year is because of something else. The record-breaking drought and heat in North America, which disrupted the monarch’s breeding cycle and dried up their food. And the biggest new threat is the increase of genetically modified plants in the U.S.

In states where the butterfly feeds and breeds, farmers have planted more than 120 million acres of genetically modified soybean and corn. The DNA of those crops has been altered to withstand powerful weed killers. But those weed-killing chemicals have nearly wiped out the milkweed in the Midwest. And milkweed is what the monarchs like to eat the most.

And the monarch isn’t just a beautiful creature. It is also important to our ecosystem. Like bees, monarch butterflies help pollenate plants, and that keeps plant life diverse and keeps our food growing. And the monarch migration brings in vital tourism dollars to areas in Mexico.

Alfonso: We cannot stand with our arms crossed, letting the butterflies disappear because we, the people of Michoacán, identify with the monarch butterflies. So it is in our hands to avoid that, so that they continue existing for years.

Shelby: Shelby Holliday, Channel One News.


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