Butterfly Police

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The iconic orange- and black-winged monarch butterfly, one of North America’s insect wonders, is on the path to extinction. Its population has collapsed by 90% since the 1990s.

Each fall, the butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles from their breeding grounds in the US and Canada to their winter sanctuaries in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico. In late winter, they mate, and begin the return trip to the US and Canada, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and die. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, who feed exclusively on these host plants, until they fly back to Mexico.

Freezing temperatures in March! In central Mexico! Blamed on global warming!

The reported population decline is based on annual estimates of the number of butterflies overwintering in Mexico. That number is, in turn, based on the number of acres occupied by the monarchs. In 2016, ten acres were occupied, compared with 44 acres 20 years ago. The cause of the decline has been attributed to habitat shrinkage, both in Mexico (trees, because of illegal logging) and in the US (milkweed acreage, because of urban sprawl and agriculture). The problem, of course, is anthropogenic: global warming and pesticide use. So says the Center for Biological Diversity, and the solution, of course, is “immediate action to rein in pesticide use and curb global climate change.”

And, of course, there is no real-world connection to either. Regarding devastation of the monarch’s Mexican habitat, environmentalist Homero Aridjis wrote, in 2016, "The Mexican government should be taking measures to mitigate the probable effects of climate change on the [monarch butterfly] reserve.” The operative word is “probable.” In March of that year, Mexico experienced the destruction of 133 acres of forest, in a storm that froze or killed an estimated 6.2 million monarch butterflies. Said monarch expert Lincoln Brower, "Never had we observed such a combination of high winds, rain and freezing temperatures.” According to Weather.com, “this storm was unexpectedly intense, fueled by shifting temperatures due to climate change.” Freezing temperatures in March! In central Mexico! Blamed on global warming!

As to the habitat effects of illegal logging, most of the land occupied by overwintering butterflies is owned by indigenous Mexicans, who must cut the forest to survive. To stave off such habitat devastation, conservationists have tried to convince impoverished landowners that “the forest is worth more to them in terms of tourism when left standing instead of being cut down.” The thinking apparently is that if the conservation pitch is successful, then future tourists will joyously snap memorable pictures of a soaring monarch migration, as it descends onto oyamel fir forests — whose then-dense canopy will hide the waning, forgotten indigenous farm and mountain communities, as they descend into deeper poverty.

No announcements have been made as to how the butterfly police will handle the environmental crimes of bark beetles.

But in case destitute locals cannot be persuaded to give up their supplemental logging incomes, “Mexico's government announced it would create a special national police squad to patrol nature reserves and fight environmental crimes.” No announcements have been made as to how the butterfly police will handle the environmental crimes of bark beetles, whose infestations of the monarch sanctuary have no doubt destroyed at least as many trees as has illegal logging.

Not to be outdone by Mexico, the US has concocted measures of equal inanity. For example, the Obama administration proposed a “fly-way” program in which milkweed refuges for the butterflies would be created along highways that follow monarch migration routes. “According to the national strategy plan released by the White House, the fly-way is intended to increase the population to 225 million butterflies by 2020.” Another plan calls for placing the monarch on the Endangered Species List. “Our government must do what the law and science demands, and protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act, before it’s too late,” scowled George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. As a resident of Alabama, I pledge that as soon as the insect appears on the list, never to stomp on a monarch that lands in my yard, and to encourage my fellow Alabamians to demonstrate similar restraint. Good God, it’s our state insect.

"Monarch Watch" counted milkweed instead of monarchs?

Unfortunately, what science demands is evidence. And the scientific evidence does not support the climate change or pesticide propaganda. According to an exhaustive study of World Wildlife Fund and citizen scientist butterfly migration data, it is most likely that neither milkweed nor herbicides limit monarch population. “Monarch numbers begin declining at the end of the summer, when the butterflies begin their long migration to Mexico, and the numbers continue to decline as they travel. During this southern migration, adult monarchs do not feed on milkweed,” wrote lead author Anurag Agrawal. “By the time they get to Mexico their numbers are plummeting, but at the end of the summer when they start their migration, their numbers are not down . . . Herbicides are not likely to be the problem, and genetically modified crops that are herbicide resistant are not likely to be the problem for the monarch.”

In their incurious haste to blame the plight of monarchs on the climate change and pesticide boogeymen that they so vividly, and obsessively, imagine, crack US scientists relied on the overwintering counts estimated by crack Mexican scientists. They didn’t think to estimate the number of butterflies that depart the US in the fall. They counted the milkweed loss (up to 6,000 acres of potential habitat a day, because of US land development, says Monarch Watch), but not the monarchs. Monarch Watch counted milkweed instead of monarchs?

Had that storm not occurred, the headline story might have been the miraculous resurgence of our cherished monarchs.

Who knows what is happening to the monarch butterfly? Most of its population decline — as any non-environmentalist would guess — seems to be occurring during its arduous 3,000-mile journey to Mexico. Some of the decline in Mexico may be caused by illegal logging, and some by the bark beetle. But even this possibility is suspect. It’s extremely difficult to believe that tenacious monarchs could not find 44 acres of sufficiently dense and healthy fir trees, unassaulted by loggers and bark beetles, somewhere in their 138,379-acre biosphere reserve. And none is caused by the shrinkage of milkweed acreage in the US.

The monarch population had been rebounding in the few years prior to the March 2016 storm. Had that storm not occurred, the headline story might have been the miraculous resurgence of our cherished monarchs. Instead, the storm was used to blame climate change and pesticides for their demise. One can only hope that this silly, condescending, ideological attribution — that millions of monarchs were frozen to death, in the spring of the year, in central Mexico, by global warming — causes a similar decline in the population of braying environmentalists, and the rapid extinction of moronic, politically motivated scientists who come up with ideas such as butterfly highways and butterfly police.




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The Great Butterfly Diaspora

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If your desk is anything like mine, every now and then news comes across it of the evil times that have befallen our beloved monarch butterflies. Their numbers are plummeting. Mexicans are chopping down the trees they roost in during the winter. Rampant de-prairieization is doing away with the milkweed they eat. Pesticides are dropping them like gassed French soldiers at Verdun. Soon we’ll be living in a drab, butterfly-free world.

Well, maybe, but a few weeks ago I was chatting with a buddy from Tonga and came to a different conclusion. My buddy and his wife had come to America to restock their supply of junk food, which they can afford to do because he used to work for an airline and they fly for free. Between resupply trips, his wife idles away her days munching Doritos and volunteering at a Tongalese butterfly sanctuary.

It isn’t just Tonga that has our monarchs. It’s Hawaii, too. And dozens of other Pacific Islands all the way right up to the Asian mainland and south to Australia.

A butterfly sanctuary in Tonga? I imagined glamorous, iridescent butterflies, wings dappling in the tropical sun.

“Not so,” my rather large buddy said. “They’re monarchs.”

Monarchs, I thought. A false cognate some local species got tagged with because they reminded a homesick 19th-century sailor of the butterflies in Nantucket.

“They’re not like American monarchs,” my buddy said. “They are American monarchs. Danaus plexippus. They’re the same species.” He seemed to know a lot about butterflies.

The speculation is that their caterpillars got to Tonga by weaving themselves up in cocoons and hitching rides on sailing ships back around the time of the Civil War, but nobody really knows.

It isn’t just Tonga that has our monarchs. It’s Hawaii, too. And dozens of other Pacific Islands all the way through Taiwan and Borneo and Sumatra right up to the Asian mainland and south to Australia. They’re not just in the Pacific, either. Monarchs have made it to the far side of the Indian Ocean where they’re happily flitting around Mauritius and Reunion Island over near Madagascar. Which puts them just about as far from America as you can get without a spaceship. In New Zealand there are so many monarch butterflies that the country has set up the New Zealand Monarch Trust to do heaven-knows-what with them. I’m guessing they want to protect their monarchs, this being New Zealand, but maybe not. To a New Zealander, a monarch butterfly might well be something they need protecting from, along the lines of the Australian possums chomping their way through the kiwis. Meanwhile the monarchs really are chomping through the milkweed.

Nobody even has an opinion as to how monarchs might have gotten to Morocco, but they’re there, too.

It turns out that the critically endangered milkweed stock that’s being driven to extinction by our unsustainable corporate farming practices over here is doing quite well in the Pacific, thank you very much. There are something like a hundred species of milkweed dotted out across the islands, species that include scary sounding, 30-foot trees made out of nothing but milkweed.

Nobody even has an opinion as to how monarchs might have gotten to Morocco, but they’re there, too. Every summer, while our less adventurous, homebound butterflies are flapping their way up from Mexico, their genetic brethren in Africa are flapping their way across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain and Portugal. Some even flap their way to England. I cannot report on where the ones in the Azores and Canary Islands flap to because the news has not reached me.

Since monarchs already live in Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, and all three Guianas, that pretty much wraps it up for the continents, except Antarctica, but who knows? There probably aren’t enough butterfly scientists down there to have taken an adequate census. As invasive species go, monarch butterflies are top of the line.




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