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Butterfly Bastion

Winnipeg Free Press
Friday, February 7, 2003

Around Labour Day, 2002, Manitoba’s monarch butterflies flew south for the winter. Unlike snowbirds, they didn’t stop in Florida, or Arizona. They fluttered and flapped and merged with hordes of monarchs from east of the Rockies, until the whole mass of them reached the Transvolcanic mountains in central Mexico.

It’s a 4000-kilometre trip guided by some instinct and navigation system that biologists don’t completely understand. The only connection the migrating butterflies had to their Mexican destination is that they were the great-offspring of last year’s Mexican migrants.

What biologists do know is that the eastern North American monarch butterfly population depends on the oyamel fir trees, moist clouds and cool temperatures found on about 11 Transvolcanic mountains. They roost in masses, preserved until spring, when they can breed, lay eggs and reseed the eastern continent with monarch butterflies for another year.

The mountains also have other dependents. People in the valleys rely on subsistence agriculture and forestry for livelihoods that raise the family but may not provide for education or potable water. Poverty and population growth, combined with agricultural practices that sap soil fertility, drives farmers up the mountainsides where they slash and burn the forest for space to grow corn, chilies and squash.

Monarch butterfly habitat in Mexico is decreasing by 1.3% a year, mostly from agricultural forest clearing. One biologist estimates that Mexican monarch butterfly habitat will be gone in two decades.

“Oyamel habitat is essential for any monarchs in mid-continent,” says Richard Westwood, Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Winnipeg and coauthor of The Butterflies of Manitoba. Monarch butterflies can rebound from certain population declines because they can reproduce high populations. “But,” says Westwood, “with their [wintering] habitat under threat, we don’t know how long they will last.”

In 1997, to counter the deforestation trend, Mexican government agencies, community and forestry representatives, with help from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Canadian International Development Agency and the Manitoba Model Forest (MBMF), established the Monarch Butterfly Model Forest or El Bosque Modelo Mariposa Monarca (BMMM). BMMM is a 7940 square kilometre piece of the Tranvolcanic mountains that embraces the wintering habitats of up to a billion monarch butterflies, as well as 1.5 million people.

The Model Forest concept is a Canadian creation turned international. The Canadian Forest Service founded the Canadian Model Forest Network in 1992 to encourage the development of environmentally and socially sustainable forestry. Within each of Canada’s 11 model forests, local communities, industry, environmental groups and scientists work cooperatively to find sustainable forest practices.

The Manitoba Model Forest stretches along the east side of Lake Winnipeg, from Pinawa north past Manigotagan. Caribou conservation, forest regeneration, pulp and paper forest use and fur trapping are among the issues that the MBMF must balance. When MBMF partnered with BMMM in 1997, the concepts of sustainable forestry were the same, but the issues were different. In Mexico, community poverty is a major constraint and the model forest must balance the needs of butterflies with foresters and subsistence farmers.

“You can’t tell a guy with ten kids to stop cutting the forest [to grow food] without providing alternatives,” says Mike Waldram, general manager of the MBMF.

Waldram and MBMF advisors have been helping communities develop alternatives. The first alternative was eco-tourism and the first project was improving eco-tourism infrastructure.

Waldram’s first trip to Mexico was a three-day, $2500 trip by plane and bus to the Transvolcanic Mountains west of Mexico City. When he finally reached one of the estimated thirty butterfly forests, a fellow in a shack charged him $1 for admission. Waldram’s first piece of advice: “Guys, you’ve got to charge more than that!”

Now there are four eco tourism centres to serve the five butterfly sanctuaries within the BMMM. MBMF helped build the eco tourism centre at La Mesa Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary near San Jose del Rincon and helped develop interpretive programs. BMMM hopes that eco tourism income will improve community economies.

But people still need to eat, so BMMM, with MBMF agriculture and silviculture experts, also researches sustainable agriculture, reforestation and agro-forestry. In one recent project, communities reforested 72 hectares of mountainside. They under-seeded two one-hectare reforestation plots with legumes and native grasses and used the plots to raise chickens. While the trees grow, chickens will eat the vegetation and fertilize the soil and residents will rotate the chickens around the plot in movable pens. Trees, butterfly habitat, meat, soil rejuvenation and erosion control in one sustainable package.

Right now, last year’s Manitoba-hatched butterflies are hanging in clusters from oyamel fir trees. Soon they will start to flutter, breed and fly north. They’ll make it to Texas or Oklahoma or Nebraska where they will lay eggs on milkweeds and die. Some of their offspring, perhaps joined by offspring from other monarchs, should flit into Manitoba by June.

Through sustainable forestry research, BMMM and MBMF hope to preserve eastern North America’s annual, welcome invasion of monarch butterflies.