Background

Remains of a “nesting” tree
Monarch discovers that the tree its ancestors have roosted on for generations was logged during their journey north. Photo by Sarah Price.

Monarch butterflies are at their most majestic when they cluster by the millions on the mountaintops of Mexico. At the same time, this segment of their annual migratory cycle finds them in their most vulnerable state: the whole eastern monarch population is concentrated on just a few acres. A healthy forest canopy and stable microclimate is critical to the survival of this endangered phenomenon, especially as their numbers have plummeted in the aftermath of the introduction of GMO crops in their U.S. breeding grounds. Small numbers and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events make forest protection more urgent than ever.

Right around the time the monarch butterfly colonies were discovered in Mexico, steady jobs with benefits were becoming a thing of the past. Instead the global economy has shifted to reliance on a contingent, flexible labor force. In the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, this trend meant that instead of jobs, residents are given annual financial incentives as a reward for forgoing timber extraction on what were once their communal lands. But people are poor, and illegal logging offers one of the few viable livelihood options in the area. So even though the Reserve is a “protected area” with a “payment for ecological services” program in place, clandestine logging continues to peck away at the forest canopy.

Despite the widespread rejection of employing workers as part of an effective conservation strategy, the forests of Cerro Pelon have benefited from the consistent presence of forest rangers. When the colony was first discovered more than 40 years ago, a local business leader from a neighboring town lobbied Mexican government agencies to hire locals to protect the butterfly forest. One of these hires was Melquiades Moreno de Jesus, the father of Butterflies and Their People board member Joel Moreno Rojas.

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Moreno Rojas family at daughter Ana’s graduation. She is among the first college graduates in the village of Macheros.

Melquiades’ ranger job and its regular paycheck made a huge difference to his family. He and his wife were able to turn their relative financial stability into more economic and educational opportunities for their ten children. The ranger job also made a difference to the forest. The rangers worked for the state of Mexico; and where the state line ends on the top of the mountain, so does the tree cover. Merely having people there on duty everyday prevented logging. People know that logging is illegal, and they don’t log in front of other people. Cerro Pelon’s loggers are neither armed nor confrontational.

During over 30 years of service, the rangers never had any sustained contact with the rest of the monarch community. First there was the language barrier. Then there was the fact that their hometown of Macheros has no phone or mail service. Potentially Melquiades and his fellow forest rangers knew so much about the colonies. They noticed when the overwintering monarchs started to cover fewer trees, but without a protocol for recording this information, they no longer remember precisely when this change occurred.

Remains of illegal logging
Illegal logging in Carditos, part of the core “protected” area of Cerro Pelon. This area had been used by butterflies the previous season.

When the rangers retired in 2014, CEPANAF took 6 months to get their replacements in place. In the meantime illegal logging in Cerro Pelon’s core protected area exploded. Even after the new rangers started, they didn’t have the same connections their predecessors had developed over the years, and logging continues to be a problem.

By hiring and training more workers, we will expand the forest protection program that is already in place. But in addition to the duties performed by the CEPANAF rangers, the Butterflies and Their People arborists will also collect data about monarch colony and forest health. Through this project, we hope to democratize citizen science and forge direct connections with locals and interested researchers. In the process, we can make data collection on the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve more transparent, flexible and responsive. This transnational conservation effort must become truly transnational if it is to succeed.