On Feb. 19, Mexican President Enrique Pena-Nieto, U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are meeting in Toluca, Mexico, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The following is an appeal from 150 prominent scientists and intellectuals to the three leaders asking them to take urgent steps to stem the collapsing population of Monarch butterflies that migrate annually across North America.
President Barack Obama
President Enrique Peña Nieto
Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Among the countless organisms that have evolved during the history of life on earth, monarch butterflies are among the most extraordinary. Sadly, their unique multigenerational migration across our large continent, their spectacular overwintering aggregations on the volcanic mountains in central Mexico, and their educational value to children in Canada, the United States, and Mexico are all threatened.
Monitoring of the butterfly population over the past two decades indicates a grim situation. Following a long-term decline, the total area occupied by the overwintering butterflies plunged from the 20-year average of 6.7 hectares to a record low of 0.67 hectares in the current season, a 90% decrease. This winter, only seven of twelve traditional sites had any butterflies at all, and only one of those (El Rosario, 0.5 hectares) was substantial in size.
The decline has two main causes:
1. Loss of breeding habitat. The major summer breeding area of the monarch butterfly is in the floristically rich grasslands of central North America, where the monarch’s milkweed food plants grow in abundance.
However, over the past decade the planting of corn and soybean varieties that have been genetically modified to be herbicide resistant has risen to 90%. Shortly after the corn or soy seeds germinate, the fields are sprayed with herbicides that kill all other plant life including the milkweeds, the only plants that monarch caterpillars can eat.
Furthermore, with economic incentives for producing corn ethanol, the planting of corn in the U.S. has expanded from 78 million acres in 2006 to 97 million acres in 2013. Fallow fields, row crops and roadsides that used to support the growth of milkweeds and substantial acreage of land previously set aside in the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program have been converted to monoculture crops. Further loss of habitat has resulted from urban sprawl and development. More generally, the current chemical-intensive agriculture is threatening monarchs and other native pollinators and unraveling the fabric of our ecosystems.
2. Degradation of overwintering habitat. Overwintering monarchs depend on the protective cover of undisturbed oyamel fir forest canopy in Mexico. While the Mexican government has largely stopped the major illegal logging that threatened the forests used by the wintering monarch butterflies, damaging small scale illegal logging continues.
What can be done? If the monarch butterfly migration and overwintering phenomenon is to persist in eastern North America, mitigation of breeding habitat loss must be initiated.
As Mexico is addressing the logging issues, so now must the United States and Canada address the effects of our current agricultural policies. Managing roadsides for native plants, including milkweeds, could be a significant tool to partially offset the loss of habitat.
There are 3.2 million miles of roads east of the Rocky Mountains. If 25-foot roadside strips and medians were managed to support the growth of milkweeds, then eastern U.S. roadsides could contribute more than 19 million acres of milkweed habitat. If two monarchs were produced per acre of habitat, then these roadsides could produce nearly 40 million monarchs, i.e., about one tenth of the 20 year average number of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico.
Within the agricultural heartland, a second mitigation effort should promote more extensive buffers of native plant communities at field margins. Collaborative exclusion of field margins in cooperation with farming communities could add substantially and help assure the continuation of the world's most revered butterfly. An incentive program to pay farmers to set aside toxin-free areas for milkweeds and pollinators could be a move in the right direction.
A milkweed corridor stretching along the entire migratory route of the monarch butterfly through our three countries must be established. This will show the political will of our governments to save the living symbol of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We the undersigned hope that you will discuss the future of the monarch butterfly during the North American leaders’ Summit that will take place on February 19-20, 2014 in Toluca, state of Mexico.
Homero Aridjis Dr. Lincoln P. Brower
President, Grupo de los Cien Sweet Briar College, USA
Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan
Co-Facilitator, Make Way for Monarchs
INTERNATIONAL MONARCH BUTTERFLY SCIENTISTS
Dr. Alfonso Alonso, Smithsonian Institution, USA
Dr. Sonia M. Altizer, University of Georgia, USA
Dr. Michael Boppre, University of Freiburg, Germany
Dr. Lincoln P. Brower, Sweet Briar College, USA
Dr. Linda S, Fink, Sweet Briar College, USA
Dr. Barrie Frost, Queens University, Ontario, Canada
Dr. Jordi Honey-Roses, University of British Columbia, Canada
Dr. Pablo F. Jaramillo-López, UNAM, Michoacán, Mexico
Dr. Stephen B. Malcolm, Western Michigan University, USA
Dr. Karen Oberhauser, University of Minnesota, USA
Dr. Robert M. Pyle, Grays River, Washington, USA
Dr. Isabel Ramirez, UNAM, Michoacan, Mexico
Dr. Daniel Slayback, Science Systems & Applications, Inc., MD, USA Dr. Orley R. Taylor, University of Kansas, USA
Dr. Stuart B. Weiss, Creekside Center for Earth Observations, CA, USA
Dr. Ernest H. Williams, Hamilton College, USA
Dr. Dick Vane-Wright, the Natural History Museum, London, UK
Dr. Myron P. Zalucki, University of Queensland, Australia
WRITERS AND ARTISTS
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Jewell James (Lummi Tribe)
Robert Kennedy, Jr.
A. E. Stallings
Terry Tempest Williams
City Lights Books
Juan Domingo Arguelles
Marco Antonio Campos
María José Cuevas
Paz Alicia Garciadiego
Hugo Gutiérrez Vega
Silvia Lemus de Fuentes
Pura López Colomé
Fernando del Paso
Juan Carlos Rulfo
Alberto Ruy Sánchez
Roger Von Gunten
John Ralston Saul
Pierre Alechinsky (Belgium)
Ivan Alechine (Belgium)
Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua)
Yves Bonnefoy (France)
Breyten Breytenbach (South Africa)
André Brink (South Africa)
Kjell Espmark (Sweden)
Maneka Sanjay Gandhi (Member of Parliament, India)
Gloria Guardia (Panama)
Alejandro Jodorowsky (France/Chile)
Nicholas Jose (Australia)
Dr. Helga von Kügelgen (Germany)
Prof. Dr. Klaus Kropfinger (Germany)
Norman Manea (USA/Rumania)
Hasna Moudud (Bangladesh)
Orhan Pamuk (Nobel Prize, Turkey)
Jonathon Porritt (United Kingdom)
Sergio Ramírez (Nicaragua)
Lélia Wanick Salgado (Brazil)
Sebastião Salgado (Brazil)
Simon Schama (United Kingdom)
Ali Smith (United Kingdom)
Lasse Soderberg (Sweden)
Hugh Thomas (Lord Thomas, United Kingdom)
Tomas Transtromer (Nobel Prize, Sweden)
Lucy Vines (France)
Per Wästberg, (Sweden)
Fred Viebahn (Germany)
SCIENTISTS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS
Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan (Make Way for Monarchs, U. of Arizona, USA)
Dr. José Sarukhan K. (Mexico)
Lester Brown (Earth Policy Institute, USA)
Ina Warren, (Make Way for Monarchs, USA)
Scott Hoffman Black, (Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and IUCN Butterfly Specialist Group, USA)
Laura Lopez Hoffman (University of Arizona, USA)
Elizabeth Howard, (Journey North, USA)
Don Davis, (Monarch Butterfly Fund, Toronto, Canada)
Claudio Lomnitz (Center for Mexican Studies, Columbia University, USA)
Amory B. Lovins (USA)
Gail Morris (Southwest Monarch Study, USA)
Serge Dedina (Wildcoast, USA)
Eduardo Nájera Hillman (Costasalvaje, Mexico)
Wallace J. Nichols (California Academy of Sciences, USA)
Arturo Gómez-Pompa (University of California Riverside, Mexico/USA)
Scott Slovic, (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment,University of Idaho, USA)
Garrison Sposito (University of California at Berkeley, USA)
Georgita Ruiz (Tierra de Aves A.C., Mexico)
Manuel Grosselet (Tierra de Aves A.C., Mexico)
Diana Liverman (Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona, USA)
Valeria Souza (UNAM, Mexico)
Eduardo Farah (EspejoRed, Mexico)
Daniel Gershenson (Mexico)
Joaquín Bohigas Bosch (Instituto de Astronomia, UNAM, Mexico)
Jo Ann Baumgartner, (Wild Farm Alliance, USA)
Jack Woody(Regional Dr,Int.Programs,US Fish & Wildlife Service, Retired)
Native American Land Conservancy (includes the following participating tribal communities: Chemehuevi, Kumeyaay, Cahuilla, Navajo, Paiute).
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Harper as "premier" of Canada; he is prime minister.