A year ago, we had glad tidings: The monarch butterflies were back.
Monarch butterflies in North America spend their summers in the northern parts of the continent, in their breeding season, and travel thousands of miles south each winter. Almost all of them winter in Mexico, although some on the west side of the Rockies go to coastal southern California, and it would appear that some monarchs that pass through the Inter-mountain West go to each place.
They are all the same species, they interbreed and, mysteriously, they make multi-generational migrations. A monarch born on the route – on the loop, really – is born knowing where to go.
Lately their numbers have been delicate, probably owing to many interrelated reasons, chief among them loss of food sources such as milkweed, loss of habitat across the continent and climate change.
A year ago, their winter numbers where they concentrate in central Mexico, in mountaintop pine and fir forests, were up a whopping 144 percent over the year before, reversing a long decline. They were not out of the woods, but they did have favored woods and they were doubtlessly helped also by the kind souls along their paths who grew milkweed or let it be, such as Patti and the late Ed Zink did north of Durango.
Now their woods are under assault. Recently, two of their human defenders, environmentalist Homero Gómez González and tour guide Raúl Hernández Romero, who both worked within the El Rosario monarch sanctuary in Michoacán, turned up murdered. Who would murder butterfly defenders?
There are no official suspects, which is the case for too many murders in Mexico, pointing to the impotence of state and federal authorities to deal with economically-driven crime waves.
The unofficial suspects are loggers who covet the same high stands of pine and fir. They want to clear them for the timber and so the land can be used to grow avocados for export to the U.S. “Gómez Gonzàlez fought to keep loggers out of the reserve, leading marches, demonstrations and anti-logging patrols,” according to the AP.
Gómez Gonzàlez, a former logger himself, disappeared Jan. 13. Two weeks later, he was found floating dead in a well not far from the preserve. Several days later, Hernández Romero, too, was found dead in a well with a deep wound to his head and his body covered in bruises.
At the moment, the monarchs, whose population has been precarious, seem to be doing better than their human guardians – but at this rate that comparison will soon be reversed.
Butterflies are exquisite creatures. They seem delicate yet they can make these inter-generational hejiras, stirring wonder at their quick appearance. They live for just a few weeks. Their lives happen very quickly and left to their own devices, they seem to make the most of them.
The short, peaceable life of a butterfly is part of its magic within a global web. More, much more, they are pollinators. They make wildflowers grow.
The violently shortened lives of their human guardians will make nothing better, not even guacamole.
The killers most likely are just trying to get by, or find themselves in the position of gangsters after Prohibition’s repeal. The people of Michoacán, however, are much poorer than anyone who followed Al Capone.
Helping the butterflies was a big enough task, but to save them now, it looks like we are going to have to help those people, too.