Researching the monarch, I had heard that climate change might render their high altitude winter home too warm by the end of the century. Another expert, Chip Taylor, suggested the miracle of their migration might come to an end as soon as thirty years from now. An oped by a NY Times editor, entitled "Monarchs fight for their lives", stated, "One recent study suggests that the long-term survival of the species may be in doubt." But so pervasive has been the displacement and destruction of their critical habitat in the central U.S. by corn fields and pesticide use that their survival from one year to the next can no longer be taken for granted. That they arrived late this year at their winter roost could have to do with weather patterns, or it could be evidence that dwindling numbers deprives the monarchs of the mass momentum that each individual must feel in a mass migration.
What could help? A shift away from GMO corn and soybeans, a return to growing these crops for food rather than ethanol, and a return to giving the monarch's critical food source, milkweed, room to grow along roadsides, between fields and on land set aside for erosion control. But just when might that happen?
Whatever we thought we had learned from the loss of the passenger pigeon early in the last century, the lesson obviously was not learned well enough. The corn and soy fields of Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and other central states have long been considered largely barren of other life. The Chicago Wilderness initiative to restore the rich intersection of northern, western and eastern flora in the Chicago area demonstrated how urban development can host accidental or intentional sanctuaries for biodiversity that would have long since been lost to plow and spray in agricultural zones.
What we learn in the story of the monarchs is that until recently those agricultural lands were still harboring populations of weeds sufficient to sustain butterflies. Only in the past fifteen years or so, as Roundup Ready corn and soybeans came to dominate, and the subsidized demand for ethanol motivated farmers to plant right up to the edge of roads and fences, did the extermination of weeds like milkweed approach complete. The impression created is of the genetic cleansing of some 150 million agricultural acres, with nothing left, after the gassing of the last remnant gypsy weed populations, but the master race of crops marching in rows.
Other factors compound the monarch's vulnerability. Though most large-scale cutting of trees in their Mexican sanctuary has been stopped, locals still sneak in to cut trees here and there. The thinning out of the forest increases the monarchs' exposure to occasional snow and ice storms. Extreme and freak weather events, becoming more frequent as the climate changes, are all the more dangerous when a species' numbers have dwindled.
By far the most detailed update and perspective comes from Linda Moulton Howe's Earthfiles website. Interestingly, she interviews Lincoln Brower, a Princeton alum ('53) who has devoted much of his life to studying the monarch. He recounts a talk he gave at his 60th reunion earlier this year:
"I gave a lecture to my 60th reunion class at Princeton University. At the end of my talk, I'd spilled my guts out over the whole monarch situation and my history of studying it for now 55 years. One man in the audience asked me, 'Well, what difference would it make if we lost the monarch butterfly anyway?' I took a deep breath and I looked straight into his eyes and said, 'What difference would it make if we lost the Mona Lisa?' The audience went very silent.
That's what we're up against is this superficial How Do We Make Money approach to the world and people have got to realize that we are dependent upon the biota for our own survival.”My brother and his wife traveled this past summer to Iowa, to search graveyards for ancestors and see the landscape where her recently deceased mother grew up. Her mother's name was Lucille. She had spent her youth on a farm not far from the Mississippi, where the bluffs along the river transition into the great flat expanse of the plains. Back then, farms were small, within shouting distance of one another, and well populated by farm animals and people.
What they found on this trip was an eerie silence, a void filled only by endless fields of corn and soybeans. No animals, no people. Land is largely owned by descendants who have long since moved away and lease their land to be farmed as part of large scale operations. There's a flurry of activity in May, when massive machines prepare and plant the fields. Then little activity can be seen beyond an occasional spraying until fall harvest. Anyone wishing to open a business in the small towns would have their pick of many a shuttered building. To appreciate a monarch's predicament in such a landscape, think of Cary Grant in the cropduster scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.
This is America's empty heartland, the product of economic forces magnified by misguided government policies that drove people and nature from the land. And what sort of heart has a nation that would allow a miracle like the monarch's migration to teeter on the brink?