The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As pesticides wipe out Monarch butterflies in the U.S., illegal logging is doing the same in Mexico.

A monarch perches on a sunflower in Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. (Tom Koerner/USFWS)

The news was already bad. Really, really bad.

Monarch butterflies that alight from Mexico and fly across the United States to Canada are being massacred. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laid out a grim statistic in February: Nearly a billion have vanished since 1990 as farmers and homeowners sprayed herbicides on milkweed, a plant the colorful creatures use as a food source, a home and a nursery.

On Tuesday, Mexican scientists and American conservationists announced that the killing field has widened in the worst place possible — a monarch sanctuary. More than 52 acres of a haven where the butterflies hibernate over winter has been degraded, mostly by deforestation from illegal logging, with drought helping the decline, they said. The upshot is that a sizable portion of monarchs that straggle from Canada, back across the states and into Mexico won’t have a home.

[The monarch massacre: Nearly a billion butterflies have vanished]

The finding is from a newly released survey of the core area of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico for 2014-2015. It was undertaken by the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the World Wildlife Fund-Telcel Alliance and showed that 49 acres were degraded by logging and another three acres by a wicked cocktail of “drought, pests, lightning and landslides.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced new steps to reverse the decline of the Monarch butterfly, including efforts to restore more than 200,000 acres of habitat along the Interstate 35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota. (Video: Reuters)

“For years most of the local communities in the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve have shown their commitment to conserve their forests by participating in the Monarch Fund, reducing deforestation to almost zero in 2011. Unfortunately over the last three years illegal logging has been documented in the same community of San Felipe of los Alzati,” said Omar Vidal, director general of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico.

“It is essential that the authorities increase surveillance in the area and continue their dialogue with the San Felipe de los Alzati community to stop forest degradation immediately,” said Victor Manuel Sanchez Cordero, director of the Institute of Biology at the university.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is reviewing a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to list monarch butterflies as an endangered species that requires special protection to survive. The agency is studying whether that is necessary and also trying to do more to help restore the population.

Butterflies aren’t immune to extinction, in spite of their prolific reproduction. The blueberry-colored Xerces blue disappeared from San Francisco years ago, and in recent years Fish and Wildlife announced that a pair of subspecies — the rockland skipper and Zestos in South Florida — haven’t been seen since 2004 and are probably extinct. Populations of other pollinators have collapsed — wasps, beetles and especially honeybees. Widespread pesticide use is the suspected cause.

[Ten things in nature that could vanish before your kids see them]

Fish and Wildlife entered into a partnership with two private conservation groups, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to grow milkweed like crazy across the country in the hopes of saving as many monarchs as possible. The plan is to make the plant widely available at nurseries.

Yosemite National Park offers protection to the milkweed plant, which is important to the survival of the "charismatic" monarch butterfly. (Video: National Park Service/Yosemite Conservancy via YouTube)

The agency is providing $2 million for on-the-ground conservation projects. As part of an agreement, the federation will help raise awareness about the need for milkweed, provide seeds to anyone willing to plant it and to plant the seeds in open space — roadsides, parks, forests and patio flower boxes, to name a few places. Another $1.2 million will go to the foundation as seed money to generate a larger fundraising match from private organizations.

Monarch butterflies once fluttered throughout the United States by the billions, flapping about on technicolor and fragile wings. Many didn’t survive the round trip to Canada and back, pass a killing field of agriculture in the United States.

Farmers are only partly to blame for the insect’s decline, said Dan Ashe, director of Fish and Wildlife. “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.

In 2014, President Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper formed a tri-national working group to protect the monarch butterfly and its habitat, the WWF and its partners said in a statement.

“It’s not about this wonderful, mystical creature,” Ashe said. “It’s about us.”

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