So, when I thought about doing this monthly series on Monarch Butterflies and “where are they now”, I thought it’d be a lighthearted fun set of posts throughout the year, tracking them as they went from Mexico to the US and Canada and back again to Mexico.
Then, I embarked on that first post in January with the reports of the lowest number of overwintering butterflies recorded but ending the post with a ray of hope….scientists modeled that with 6 more weeks of good weather in Mexico and enough milkweed in spring in the US, the population could rebound.
Well, as February hit and we dig out from our snow storm here, I was flooded by emails on a weather event of a different type in Michoacan, Mexico: Rains, cold temperatures, mudslides and even a snowfall hit this tiny mountain area. The towns of Angangueo, Ocampo, Zitacuaro and others were destroyed, leaving a trail of people dead, entire towns of people homeless and the future of Monarch butterflies as we know it in question.
Before I go further to recount the February events, I want to reflect on the words of Emily Dickenson that “hope is a thing with feathers”. To take that further, hope is a thing with wings, indeed, the wings of Monarchs. In this relay of life that our Monarch Butterflies endure, the surviving butterflies will start their journey northward in the next few weeks and we (you and I) play a key role in helping restore their population. The future of monarch butterflies is in our hands and it lies in the seeds of a simple plant, one that you and I can protect and grow far and wide: the Milkweed.
In coming days, I’ll do a post just on Milkweed, but for now, let’s step back into February to understand what happened to the people and the butterflies of Michoacan:
February 4th was the first email I read and it started with this: “It has rained hard for 3 days and continues. Angangueo’s river flooded all the way down to the Tuxpan river, and has done much damage in the area of the path of both rivers. Also, a tornado went through the outskirts of Zitacuaro yesterday and destroyed some places we know..…They have no electricity, which means also no water, no news….The hospitals have had to close.”
Then, Lincoln Brower sent this report:
“First killing winter storm for the 2009-2010 overwintering season. I am just off the phone (4:30PM EST) with colleagues in Mexico 4 February 2010. Pablo Span visited the Pelon colony when it was not raining on Tuesday 2 January and said there were more (presumably dead) monarch butterflies on the ground than he had ever before seen. Pablo reports that the local Pelon guards told him that there are two colonies on Pelon, one called Carditos and the other La Costera. According to our student, Raul Zubieta, there was a major winter storm occurring on the Sierra Chincua on Monday 1 February and that this likely has caused major mortality in all the colonies.
Second killer storm. Pablo also told me that very severe weather is currently impacting the whole area. At 6 AM on Wednesday 3 February heavy rain began falling and it is still raining at 5 PM on 4 February. He measured the rain on 3 February at the hotel at 3.5 inches. As of 740 PM 4 Feb, so far 15 inches of rain have fallen since Monday. Two groups of tourists attempted to visit the butterflies at Rosario today (4 Feb).
The first group succeeded, but the second did not because a bridge between Ocampo and Rosario washed out. Pablo also said that the main highway bridge on Route 15 through Tuxpan washed out. LPB tried calling Mitzi Mancilla in Tuxpan but could not get through. Pablo also said that a colleague who lives near Crescencio Morales (located at the southern end of the Sierra Campanario – Rosario is at the northern end) reported serious flooding. The ejido Crescencio Morales has been illegally and massively clear cut in the past 4 years. It is likely that the erosion of the now barren former Oyamel forest area is extensive. Another colleague in Angangueo reported frightening rain for 48 hours and still raining as of noon 4 Feb. and that a house fell down killing three children. Little we can do…..”
Reports show over 10,000 people impacted, 2,500 homes destroyed, hundreds injured and at least 37 killed. Dams broke, rivers overflowed, mountains deforested gave way to massive mudslides that buried homes and buildings below. The Mexican Army was deployed to help as they could. Through the rains, Monarchs clung to branches but were also pushed to the ground.
We hoped for weather above freezing so that they could survive. By February 7th, the sun was out, rubble was being cleared and Angangueo was officially evacuated. I reached my friend Mario, who guided us through the sanctuaries and took us to special places when we visited last February. He and his family were fine but had lost friends in mudslides and floods.
Information on the Monarch population has been sketchy both because roads to the sanctuaries have been out so few people have been able to get to the colonies to check and because the clusters of Monarchs have dispersed some with the storms. I’ve seen reports that maybe 10% of the butterflies have died, but there have also been hopeful reports that while there has been mortality, it’s not as bad as it could have been for the butterflies.
Here is an account from Journey North with Lincoln Brower on data that has come in so far, pretty much leaving us with the recognition that we’ll have to wait and see: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/Brower022510.html
I’ll continue to follow this of course and will post again on our Monarchs in March. But in the meantime, start ordering those milkweed seeds!