It was a big week for two hardship cases in the animal kingdom — manatees and monarch butterflies. Both are on the rebound.
On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that monarch butterfly populations were up an estimated 255 percent in a reserve Mexico created for their protection. That good news followed Thursday’s release of a count that showed Florida’s endangered West Indian manatee population rocketed upward for a second year straight.
For the butterflies, this news is in stark contrast to an announcement by the Fish and Wildlife Service last year around this time. The colorful creatures that make a miraculous flight each year across the United States to Canada and back to Mexico were observed on just 2.8 acres of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, where they spend the winter, compared with the 10 acres they’re inhabiting now.
Fish and Wildlife was so alarmed that it joined forces with two environmental groups, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to strategically plant milkweed, which the butterflies use as habitat and food, across the country. Each group put out a call to homeowners to do the same to give monarchs as much comfort as possible in a world of farm and household insecticides that are wiping them out.
Wildlife officials greeted the recent monarch windfall as good news, but were still fairly grim about their overall outlook. “Long story short, monarchs are still struggling,” Fish and Wildlife said in a news release. “In recent years, monarchs have decreased by 90 percent since peak populations in the mid-90s. Loss of milkweed and prairie habitat in the United States, along with loss of habitat in overwintering grounds have contributed to the decline of this incredible insect.”
The loss of habitat is due to Mexican logging. It’s only 60 miles from sprawling Mexico City, one of the world’s most populated. Monarchs stay in 138,000 acres of a forested, mountainous reserve from about October to February. According to Fish and Wildlife, they mostly cluster in Mexico’s rare oyamel fir forests for protection from extreme temperatures, rain, snow and predators.
“As temperatures drop, monarch movement decreases, and the butterflies form large, dense clusters on oyamel branches, coloring the forest orange,” the agency said. After surviving the weather, a more deadly challenge awaits as they fly through the United States past farms and clouds of pesticides. But farmers aren’t entirely to blame, said Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe.
“We’ve all been responsible. We are the consumers of agricultural products. I eat corn. American farmers are not the enemy. Can they be part of the solution? Yes,” Ashe said. “It’s not about this wonderful, mystical creature. It’s about us.”
Manatees are another story. Their rebound is years in the making, going from a low of about 1,000 in 1973 to about 6,200 in the last annual count. Since their numbers have been no lower than 4,500 in the past five years, Fish and Wildlife moved in January to reclassify the manatees from endangered to threatened.
Manatees, or sea cows, as they’re known, have been in Florida for 45 million years, according to fossil records. They are an offshoot of the West Indian manatee that roams the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to north Brazil, and the Gulf of Mexico from southern Mexico to Colombia. In those areas, they are scattered in much smaller numbers.
Even as the round, soft and squishy animals thrive, groups such as Save the Manatees and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have expressed concern about their management under Fish and Wildlife.
Manatee numbers are rebounding now, but history shows that the population of this sensitive creature could take another dive at any time, said Laura Dumais, the lead counsel for PEER. Nearly 800 were killed in 2010, and an extended cold snap was blamed for 300 of those deaths. Three years later, there were a record 800 deaths. Fish and Wildlife estimates that 99 manatee deaths per year are related to humans.
Boaters in Florida want wildlife officials to relax slow boating zones set up to protect manatees as their numbers increase. Also, the popularity of programs that allow snorkelers to swim with the animals in warm springs where they go to flee deadly cold Atlantic Ocean waters in winter are on the rise. Animal rights activists believe snorkelers and people who gawk at them from canoes scare them back to the Atlantic.
“Swim with [manatees] programs significantly impair these endangered animals’ essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, and sheltering,” Dumais said last year after PEER threatened to sue Fish and Wildlife for allowing sightseers to get too close to manatees in areas such as the Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County. “Some people have a hard time understanding this connection, because they don’t see manatees keeling over before their eyes; they might think that the manatees don’t seem to mind.”
That’s exactly how it seems, said Andrew Gude, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Central Florida.
“The manatee is actually a success story. Their numbers are going up, the population is going up,” Gude said last year when PEER and other groups complained about how the refuge is managed. “Tourism has also gone through the roof. You can rent a car and for $40 you can swim with a mammal that will never rip you apart. The reason the service has been so supportive is that when people see the manatees and get in the water with them, in a lot of ways it changes their lives and they’re a lot more conservation-minded.”