Monarch Watch Update - January 16, 2004



1) Welcome!

2) Conservation Perspectives

3) Western Monarchs

4) Ellwood Main Butterfly Preserve

5) Status of the Population

6) Tag Recovery Fund

7) Introduced Predators and Parasitoids

8) How to Unsubscribe from this Update


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2) Conservation Perspectives - by Jordi Honey-Rosés

Monarch Butterflies and Giant Sequoias: Shared Greatness and Plight

Critics in Mexico frequently scoff at conservationists for having their priorities mixed up. After all, human needs should be met first before worrying about trees and butterflies. Such comments, while sounding reasonable, in fact lack a bit of perspective and may I daresay a bit of humility as well.

The 2,000 mile Monarch butterfly migration from southern Canada to Mexico's central pine forest is one of Nature's finest wonders. It is amazing to think that a Monarch butterfly that hatches near Ontario can find its way to a grove of trees in central Mexico next to another Monarch, perhaps born in central Minnesota. They are united by a journey of thousands of miles, bringing them to the same tree in Mexico where neither has been before.

Such an amazing and inexplicable natural feat is on par with other natural wonders such as the awe-inspiring Giant Sequoias (Sequoia gigantea) of California. What the Monarch butterflies have in orientation and resilience, the Giant Sequoia's have in size and longevity. The Giant Sequoias are the tallest and oldest trees in the world, rising to an astonishing height of 281 feet (85.6 meters) and having survived several millenniums. When John Muir counted the annual rings on the biggest stump he ever saw he found more than 4000. More recent estimates place the age of the oldest Sequoia at 3,200 to 2,500 years. That means that when Julius Cesar and Jesus Christ walked the Earth, these giant trees were already a few hundred years old.

The story of the Monarch Butterfly migration parallels both the greatness and the plight of the Giant Sequoia. When Western pioneers encountered the enormous Sequoias some were quick to set up sawmills seeking to log the giant trees into equally giant profits. Unfortunately, the sawmills were not as profitable as hoped. Natural historian Donald Culross Peattie describes the logging of a Sequoia grove in his book A Natural History of Western Trees: "Today… there are thousands of logs that were never utilized because they proved too big or costly to handle, millions of board feet gone to waste because the wood smashed to bits in its fall. The whole ghastly enterprise ended in financial failure, but not a failure of destruction. That was complete." In a few brief weeks, a millisecond in the life of a Giant Sequoia, man brought the life of several groves of 2500 year old trees to an abrupt end. The leveling of these Giant Sequoia groves robbed future generations from the privilege of enjoying some of the oldest trees alive as well as robbing the natural species of their home. Today most would agree that such destruction of ancient life forms is arrogant and unacceptable.

Just as the Western Pioneers faced several choices with regard to the fate of California's Giant Sequoias, we now face similar management decisions at the overwintering sites of the Monarch butterfly in Mexico. Many argue that the logging must continue to meet the immediate needs of the local population. Indeed it is true that many local ejidos and indigenous communities live in poor and in some cases dire living conditions. Yet while unfair land distribution, misguided agrarian policy, and the lack of democratic institutions have put rural Mexico into a hole, logging clearly isn't pulling them out. The last 30 years of intense logging has failed to bring the local communities any closer to having healthier children, more literate leaders or more organized communities. Poverty and illiteracy reigned 30 years ago as it still does today. The living conditions are in fact worse now if one considers the loss of traditional and indigenous knowledge as well as the forest resources.

Moreover, those truly profiting from logging are not the immediate and surrounding population but others found living miles away from the Monarch butterfly region. The beneficiaries are the owners of sawmills or medium size businesses who add value to the timber by making furniture, doors or other wood products, often times with illegal timber. Of the 33 ejidos or indigenous communities with land in the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, only two communities own a functioning sawmill, while not a single community owns any organized wood related business. By selling the timber as standing trees and not processing the wood themselves, the ejidos and indigenous communities allow the major profits to be sent elsewhere. Whatever cash is paid to the community from the timber industry may frequently be controlled by a small circle of individuals or community leaders.

Similar to the nil benefits California now receives from having logged the Giant Sequoias 150 years ago, Mexicans and the public at large are at risk of loosing the Monarch overwintering phenomenon for nothing in return. Those who cry that local inhabitants are forced to cut trees in order to feed their family misinterpret the realities of the area. Organized logging by external interests is the major threat to the pine-oyamel forest at the overwintering sites, and those benefiting from organized logging are not the local families but the private business owners that may never step foot in an oyamel forest. Even many of the cornfields seen bordering the oyamel forest today were originally deforested for the value of the timer.

Appalled as we all should be at the poor living conditions of rural Mexico, we should also look to our political and economic institutions to solve these problems instead of "sacrificing" the forest habitat of the Monarch butterflies in favor of fictitious rural development or "the need to feed poor families". Our human economic system has created and perpetuated poverty, not the Monarch butterflies or the oyamel forest. If the destructive logging continues, the local inhabitants are likely to gain neither economic development nor maintain the honor (and revenue) that comes with hosting one of Nature's finest natural wonders. With a dose of historical perspective and humility towards Nature's creation, our generation might be remembered for what we succeeded in leaving behind. And then our priorities might not be so mixed up after all.

About the Author
Jordi is from Sunnyvale, California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. He joined World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Mexico City in November of 2001 and since has been privileged to join the trinational conservation efforts to protect the overwintering habitat of the Monarch Butterfly. When not chasing after Monarch Butterflies, Jordi enjoys triathlon training and reading about Mexican and European history.

Conservation Perspectives
Conservation Perspectives will provide regular and accurate updates on the local conservation issues at the Mexican overwintering sites of the Monarch Butterfly. This space will be a forum for discussion and sharing. The updates will serve as conduit for ideas and stories that are rarely heard from Mexican side of the border, especially those successes by local Mexican inhabitants to protect the forest of the Monarch Butterfly.


3) Western Monarchs

It is difficult to obtain a clear picture of status of the overwintering colonies in California. Monarchs overwinter in as many as 300 sites along hundreds of miles of coastline. A number of groups, with a variety of affiliations, monitor many of the known sites. We have two reports from the west this month, one by Sarah Stock, of the Ventana Wilderness Society, on the importance of long term monitoring of monarch overwintering sites in California and the other by David Marriott, founder of the Monarch Program in San Diego, on the possible impact of the October-November fires on the monarchs south of Santa Barbara.

If you would like to visit monarch overwintering sites in California in the coming months, information on a number of sites can be found at

Thanks to Mia Monroe, Park Ranger, Muir Woods National Monument, for assisting with this report.

*** Long-term Monitoring: A California Perspective ***
*** By Sarah Stock, Ventana Wilderness Society ***

Long-term monitoring of the number of monarchs and habitat conditions at the monarch overwintering sites in California is needed not only to develop a perspective of the conservation issues involved, but also to update the state's Natural Diversity Database. The latter is critical to site protection in California since any agency/developer must determine if the site contains protected species before proceeding with the permitting process. Unfortunately, the data on monarchs is seriously out of date.

With respect to conservation, long-term monitoring is required to answer a number of questions. Are monarch butterflies declining; how does climate affect monarch butterfly populations; do winter storms cause high mortality; does predation impact winter populations? When do overwintering monarch butterfly numbers peak; do monarch butterflies cluster on the same trees every winter; why do butterflies remain throughout the winter at some overwintering sites, yet depart in mid-season at others? These questions are of interest to biologists, citizen scientists, land managers, and numerous monarch butterfly enthusiasts throughout the western states.

Answers to these questions will only come from standardized long-term monitoring data collected from a diverse array of California's overwintering sites throughout the overwintering period. The protocols and requirements for long-term monitoring were one of the topics at the Western Monarch Butterfly Symposium held in Coyote Hills Regional Park, California in October 2003.

Long-term monitoring isn't sexy and it doesn't attract financial support from foundations or funding agencies because they are more interested in funding projects that yield immediate results. None-the-less, long-term monitoring over a minimum of 10 years will show whether changes in the size of the population are due to climatic or anthropogenic factors and will provide a framework for answering a wide variety of questions pertaining to the specific affects of weather and climate, site management, predation on overwintering butterflies, and how butterflies behave in the groves over the course of the winter. Already, three years of weekly monitoring in Monterey County, California by Ventana Wilderness Society, in addition to veteran observations by Dennis Frey (California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo County, California) and Mia Monroe (Muir Woods in Marin County, California) have shown that populations fluctuate relative to environmental conditions, such as wind speed and direction. In addition, the patterns of use of these sites by the butterflies throughout the winter indicates that it is more important to recognize the total overwintering habitat, i.e., the "butterfly grove" rather than the "butterfly tree" as the unit to be conserved.

To practice and implement standardized monitoring protocols and methods, Ventana Wilderness Society and California Polytechnic State University, which currently monitor overwintering butterflies, hosted the 2nd Annual Monarch Butterfly Workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to continue collaboration among monarch butterfly enthusiasts and biologists in order to conduct long-term monitoring efforts in California. Much of the foundation for long-term monitoring has already been established. However, feedback and standardization between and among collaborators are crucial to the success of long-term project goals.

Western forums in the last few years have served as excellent venues to discuss field protocols and calibrate field methods. In Monterey County, Ventana Wilderness Society biologists, with funding from citizen scientist Helen Johnson and collaborative input from Mia Monroe and Dennis Frey, have embarked on the 3rd year of weekly winter (October to March) monitoring at seven sites along the central coast of California. An extensive inventory is made during each site visit. This includes estimating the numbers of butterflies in each single cluster, tree by tree. For each cluster, biologists record the estimated number of butterflies, tree species containing the cluster, height of the cluster, and aspect the cluster faces. In addition, detailed notes on weather are recorded, including wind speed, direction, cloud cover, temperature, etc. Throughout the season, biologists strive toward accurate counts, including the practice of various exercises such as estimating the number of butterflies in a cluster followed by netting the cluster and conducting a quantitative count from which to compare and calibrate.

The monarch butterfly is an easy insect to develop a passion for, as evidenced by the resurgence of research being conducted on overwintering monarchs in California. The sight of thousands of butterflies clustered together, hanging tightly to a cypress branch that sways madly in the gale winds or the shivering of a grounded lone butterfly revving up for take-off in anticipation of warming temperatures fills us with passion, joy, and subtle reminders that we have a responsibility to conserve monarch butterflies, not just now or tomorrow, but far into the future.

*** Summary: Wild Fires 2003 in Southern California ***
*** By David Marriott, Monarch Program, San Diego ***

We will never know the true story of the influence of the Southern California wild fires on migrating monarchs in late October. We have evidence of survivors living through the days of dark, smoky skies (based on tagging reports), but we do not know how many perished when flying with the Santa Ana winds during the worst fire storms in the history of California.

In late November and early December, Monarch Program associates Bill Howell and David Marriott visited 59 coastal overwintering sites south of Santa Barbara County into Baja California, Mexico and toured 200 miles of fire devastated areas in San Diego County. Early reports from Howell and Marriott reflect sad news from San Diego. In some areas, or as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the remnants of a nuclear bombing. Scattered throughout the mountains and valleys were small pockets of native vegetation that were not burned. Each of these areas may become an oasis for animals to help repopulate. Some animal species, including the Thorne's hairstreak butterfly (Mitoura thornei), may now be extinct. It will take years to assess what type of impact the fires had on plant and animal colonies.

The fire storms may have affected large numbers of migrant monarchs in late October because overwintering sites south of Santa Monica to the Mexican border had fewer monarchs than last year -- the lowest year recorded for this area. Overwintering sites north of Los Angeles County to Santa Cruz County are reporting larger population numbers than last season. The end of a four year drought is probably helping the increased population.

The red gum eucalyptus trees are making a comeback from the lerp psyllid infestation. The leaves are green and the mid-range foliage is returning, however the monarchs are not returning in the Southwest. All conditions were right: high numbers of caterpillars on milkweed reported in September, end of a four year drought, healthy eucalyptus groves, and no monarchs? Before the drought, we had at least 26,000 monarchs spending the winter in San Diego County. This season we counted 58.

Based on population figures from other counties this season, and past records, the Southwest should have had a population 5 - 10 times as high as recorded. Could the gap have been the result of monarchs that were affected by the fires? A few more years of monitoring overwintering sites may shed light on what impact the fires had on migrating monarchs this season. Obviously some were lost, but we do not have clear evidence as we do with mountain lions, deer, and other large animals.

Below is a list of Thanksgiving Monarch Counts south of Santa Barbara since 1997. The "number of sites checked" should be balanced with the number of monarchs sighted from year to year to obtain an average population number. For example, nearly twice as many sites were checked in San Diego this season (see population number) as compared to last season, thus the total population last year may have been twice the number listed for that season. All population numbers are not exact. They are an accumulation of numbers provided by volunteers estimating populations at overwintering sites during the Annual Monarch Thanksgiving Count along the west coast in late November and early December.



4) Ellwood Main Butterfly Preserve

More funding for Ellwood Main Butterfly Preserve in Goleta, California

The article at the referenced below details additional funding ($800,000) that will be used to cover the costs of the land needed to secure the preservation of the monarch overwintering site known as Ellwood Main. For an earlier article, see the our December 2003 Email Update.


5) Status of the Population - by Chip Taylor

News from the overwintering sites has been scarce and, as of this writing (10 January),there is no information on the size of the overwintering colonies. According to information passed on from Jordi Honey-Rosés two colonies are present on Sierra Chincua this season. One colony is presently located along the ridge between Mojonera Alta and Llanos de Los Toros, near the head of the upper tributary of the Arroyo Honda. Colonies usually form in this general area on Chincua and the guides will probably direct visitors to this site through the season. The second colony, known as Llano de Koala, is located one ridge over from Zapatero to the north. Monarchs are not often at this location but there was a colony at this site in 2002 at the time of the massive winter storm that killed at least 75% of the monarchs located at the Llanos de Los Toros site.

At El Rosario there is one colony located to the NE of the Llanos de Los Conejos so tourists will have to traverse the entire trail and cross the open area of the Llanos to see the butterflies. Recently, colonies have formed at this site almost every year. Cerro Pelon, a site close to Zitacuaro that has been increasingly been visited by tourists in the last few years, has two colonies. Piedra Herrada, located to the southeast, typically has one of the smaller colonies, has a colony this season. Last month we reported that a colony, perhaps temporary, had formed at Altimirano (Contapec). We are trying to confirm the presence of this colony and determine if monarchs have populations at Chivati-Huacal, San Andres, Mil Cumbers, and Palomas as well.


6) Tag Recovery Fund

Thanks to those who have contributed to the Tag Recovery Fund, we currently have sufficient funds to purchase approximately 300 tags this year. We anticipate purchasing 600-1,000 tags this spring; therefore, we could still use your help. If you would like to contribute to this fund, please send your contributions to:

Monarch Watch
University of Kansas
1200 Sunnyside Avenue
Lawrence, KS 66045

Many companies will match their employees' donations to educational institutions, which may result in a doubling or even tripling your gift. Please be sure to find out if your company participates in such a program and if you have any questions about this or need additional information please let us know.

Thank you!


7) Introduced Predators and Parasitoids - by Chip Taylor

Polistes dominulus: Additional notes

The text on the European paper wasp Polistes dominulus in last month's update generated several responses. Bob Matthews pointed out that I used the genus name Vespa for the German yellow jacket; the correct genus is Vespula. This has been corrected on the web site. Gene Morton mentioned that he had recently identified P. dominulus from the Twin cities area in Minnesota, adding yet another state to the rapidly expanding distribution of this species. And lastly, Linda Rayor reminded me of my failing memory by pointing out that I had heard her talk about her experimental studies of predation by P. dominulus on monarch larvae at the Monarch Conference in Lawrence in the spring of 2001. I remembered the talk as being on Polistes but I didn't connect it to dominulus. Unfortunately, not only did I forget Linda worked with P. dominulus, I have no recollection of the details. I will have to wait until the papers from the Lawrence meeting are published. Cornell University Press will publish the collected papers from the Monarch Conference in a volume entitled "The Monarch Butterfly: Biology and Conservation." Publication is scheduled for June and the listed price is $39.95.


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