By Jill and Harold Draper

Monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies. Credit: Nicole DeNary

BREATHING HARD IN THE THIN MOUNTAIN AIR, we reached the trail’s end at the top of Sierra Chincua, a 10,000-foot-high biosphere reserve and world heritage site in central Mexico. Stepping into a sunny clearing, we looked about in wonder. Hundreds — no, thousands — of monarchs warmed by the noonday sun were swooping and swirling around us in lazy circles.

A few steps further took us back into the shade where even more butterflies could be seen, like orange sparks rising and falling against dark green fir needles and even darker tree trunks. The Vigilante Ecologico, rangers who monitor these woods, have roped off the most concentrated areas and keep a watchful eye on the scattering of tourists who come in mid-February to witness the annual overwintering of millions of the monarchs, which have traveled as far as 3,500 miles to this spot. With binoculars we could see deeper into the forest where huge clusters of monarchs huddled together for warmth, bending the boughs of trees or lined up in rows on trunks, the patterned brown undersides of their wings blending perfectly with the bark.

Gazing in wonder at monarchs

Gazing in wonder at monarchs; Credit: Jill Draper

“It’s magical,” whispered someone behind me. And mysterious, too. No one knows why these fragile-looking insects travel so far in a migration pattern that stretches from the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada to the Mexican highlands. But we do know that things are changing. Monarch numbers have been dropping steadily for the last 10 years.

That’s one reason American Forests has organized this trip for 26 members. We’ve come to learn more about what’s happening to these creatures and to witness what some call the most complex animal migration in the world. And if the numbers continue to drop, it’s an opportunity that may not arise again in the future.

Sound like fun? Join us for the next trip — to the Big Island of Hawai‘i

THE FLIGHT IN PLIGHT

Two days later, we found ourselves on a higher mountain, the 12,000-foot El Rosario, where the monarchs gather at the end of a path that includes nearly 800 steps. It was Sunday, and though a dozen of us had joined the crowds of Mexican tourists enjoying a weekend excursion, the rest of our group were riding up the steep hillside on horseback. The monarchs in this reserve are even more populous, and along a quiet fork of the main trail where they had gathered to sip water from a rivulet, we could actually hear their wings fluttering like a soft rainfall.

Riding up El Rosario to see the monarchs

Riding up El Rosario to see the monarchs; Credit: Jill Draper

Mexican Indians have long known where the monarchs overwintered, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the wider world learned the stunning details of their thousands-of-miles migration. The monarchs arrive in late autumn and spend the next five months or so resting and eventually mating. By mid-March, the females begin flying north, scouting out milkweed patches in Texas and the southern states where they will lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars.

But here’s where the story gets weird. The migration of the monarchs happens in generational waves. The first-generation caterpillars change into butterflies, mate and advance north. Some make it all the way to Canada while others reach the lower Midwest, again searching out milkweed — the only plant their caterpillars can eat. Again, they lay eggs, hatch, metamorphose, mate and some continue north. After three to five short-lived generations, the last wave of pregnant females lays eggs. Then, the strangest part of all: The caterpillars from this last group become a long-lived “super generation” of butterflies that head south and migrate all the way back to central Mexico in the fall, in one long swoop. How they know to return to the same overwintering spots over a gap of several generations is still a mystery.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed, their sole food source

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed, their sole food source; Credit: Vicki’s Nature/Flickr

“There’s nothing else like this on the planet,” says Chip Taylor, an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas and director of Monarch Watch, a conservation and outreach program that promotes growing milkweed. “Lots of other butterflies migrate, but none of them cluster like this and have such an intriguing life story.” It was that life story that first surprised and captivated the world.

The public was shocked again in the 1980s when images of logging trucks filled with butterflies still clinging to freshly cut trees were televised. In 1986, the government established the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a 139,000-acre area that spans the states of Michoacán and Mexico. That designation and reforestation efforts have helped, but logging — both legal and illegal — remains the primary commercial activity in these remote highlands where ancient volcanic mountaintops rim the landscape.

Monarchs alight on the trunk of a tree.

Monarchs alight on the trunk of a tree. Credit: J. Daniel Hammond

In addition to concerns about forest loss in Mexico, a sharp decrease in milkweed in the United States is another huge problem. This decline is largely attributed to an increase in the use of the herbicide glyphosate, used widely in sprays for controlling roadside vegetation and in a variety of genetically modified crops like corn, soybeans and cotton.

“I keep getting asked, what happens if the monarchs disappear?” Taylor says. “That’s not the point. They’re one of those really conspicuous natural phenomena. We have to keep the pollinators healthy. When their numbers go down, it’s an indication of some serious things going wrong.”

Numbers of monarchs are hard to calculate, but the average number is thought to be 350 million. This year’s number is estimated at 60 million — an 80 percent decline. Their overwintering colony sizes are easier to measure. In 1996, the monarchs occupied a peak of 52 acres; in recent years their clusters take up barely three acres. We’re lucky to be here to witness them while we still can.

WITNESSING THE WONDER WITH AMERICAN FORESTS

Each day of our trip, after our outings, we returned to the small town of Tlalpujahua, one of several former mining communities in the region. The mines here produced gold and silver until 1937 when a major landslide occurred. Now much smaller, the town has come to rely on tourism and blown-glass Christmas tree ornaments for much of its economy.

The hotel Mansion de San Antonio

The hotel Mansion de San Antonio; Credit: Jill Draper

Our hotel, the five-year-old Mansion de San Antonio, is built into the hillside, and when our full-sized coach bus pulled up each afternoon, we would hold our breath as the driver expertly maneuvered between the entrance and a vertical rock wall. Greeting us in the lobby, the hotel owner offered rounds of cocktails: margaritas, mojitos, wine, shots of tequila and bottles of Corona and Victoria beer. A visiting chef cooked delicious native dishes for breakfast and dinner. We started each morning with fresh papaya, pineapple and cantaloupe, followed by eggs scrambled with chorizo, salsa-topped Mexican cheese or pancakes and mangoes. Nearly every evening, we climbed the steps to the hotel’s open-air rooftop event space to be entertained by musicians and dance groups.

American Forests used to organize trips for members, usually in the form of overnight horseback rides in the American West. From 1933 through the 1980s, the Trail Riders of the Wilderness program gave members the opportunity to learn about our forests first-hand. When Matthew Boyer, vice president of individual giving, joined the organization in 2012, he decided to renew the tradition. Our trip to see the monarchs is the first recent venture, or “Forestscape”; other trips to Hawai‘i and Yellowstone National Park are being planned for this fall and next winter.

Trail Riders in Rocky Mountain National Park, 1938

Trail Riders in Rocky Mountain National Park, 1938; Credit: Department of the Interior

“I’m a huge fan of the outdoors and I think there’s no better way to engage members than to get them into the woods to see the impact of our forest restoration work,” Boyer says. He arranged the monarch trip with the help of Rebeca Quiñonez- Piñón, a former university professor who grew up in Mexico and now directs Forests for Monarchs, based in Austin, Texas.

A project of the nonprofit La Cruz Habitat Protection Project, Forests for Monarchs has partnered with American Forests Global ReLeaf program for almost a decade to restore crucial butterfly habitat as well as provide local jobs, protect watersheds and encourage responsible lumber industry practices. Since the partnership began in 2006, American Forests and Forests for Monarchs have planted 1 million trees together, bringing Forests for Monarchs’ total to 7 million trees.

Rebeca Quiñonez-Piñón of La Cruz Habitat Protection Project with Matthew Boyer and Scott Steen of American Forests

Rebeca Quiñonez-Piñón of La Cruz Habitat Protection Project with Matthew Boyer and Scott Steen of American Forests; Credit: Jill Draper

One morning, we visit a nursery and Quiñonez- Piñón explains how seeds gathered by local residents from two species of native pines are planted in the fall and cared for until the rainy season in late summer. When transplanted during this wet period, the seedlings have an extremely high success rate.

“It’s understandable that there’s a conflict between the monarchs and the logging industry because they need the same habitat,” Quiñonez- Piñón says. “We’re hoping to open more nurseries in the area and expand the number of seedlings being produced. We need more people to know about this problem.”

Along the route our bus travels to the monarch reserves, it’s easy to see there are not many other jobs available. Clusters of small houses painted yellow, orange, blue and green dot the landscape between plots of iron-rich red volcanic dirt and rolling hills covered with cactus, agave and grasses. Occasionally we see a small herd of sheep or goats, or men with tractors or horse-drawn plows cultivating fields for spring plantings of corn, alfalfa, oats and fava beans. In higher elevations, agriculture is less common on the steep terrain. When traveling through Angangueo, another former mining town that welcomes butterfly tourists, we encounter homes and stores stacked nearly vertically in a mountain canyon. We clap and yell “bravo!” as our driver twice backs down a narrow road for a quarter mile before finding passage for our 40-foot-long bus through the twisty streets.

Handpainting dishware at Estanzuela Ceramics Studio

Handpainting dishware at Estanzuela Ceramics Studio; Credit: Jill Draper

Our trips to the two monarch reserves were bookended around a “cultural heritage day.” First, we visited Estanzuela Ceramics Studio where we browsed hand-painted dishware and ate a sack lunch in a sunny courtyard amid pink and red geranium flowers. Later, we toured Tlalpujahua, named by the Mazahua people and established as a formal Spanish settlement in 1603. We explored the slanting stone streets and admired the Sanctuary of the Virgen del Carmen, an eclectic half-Baroque, half-Neoclassical church that combines Catholic symbolism in its papal hat-shaped rooftop with indigenous images like the native jaguar.

A GREATER CAUSE

During our trip, it was announced that President Obama would meet with the president of Mexico and prime minister of Canada in Toluca to discuss, among other things, the monarchs. Later, the leaders agreed to create a working group to study ways to protect the butterfly.

Monarchs clustering on fir trees

Monarchs clustering on fir trees; Credit: Sandi and David Whitmore

Scott Steen, president and CEO of American Forests, was part of our tour group. He also emphasized the need to get governments working together with biologists, foresters, entomologists and general citizens — not just on the monarch situation, but on all types of environmental problems. “We can’t be satisfied with winning small battles, while we are losing the war,” he says. “The monarchs, like nearly 80 percent of the animal species in North America, are dependent on healthy forests. But if we want to have diverse wildlife populations for future generations, we also have to stop destroying their food sources with our chemicals and carving their habitat into smaller and smaller disconnected pieces.”

On one of our last nights in the mountains, we gathered on the hotel rooftop to witness the ceremony of El Palo Volador, “the pole flyer.” One by one, to the sound of a pan flute and a slow drumbeat, four young men dressed as eagles climbed a tall cedar pole to a small platform and wound loops of rope around their waists. A narrator below explained how this prayer-like tradition originated with the Mazhaua people, later incorporating a tribute to a local saint, San Pedro Tarimbaro.

“We hear an ancient call that brings hope to the modern earth,” the narrator said. “A call to places where the earth ends, to places where nothing is impossible. All of this enriches and renews the earth, as the cycle of life continues.”

Performers in the ceremony of El Palo Volador, “the pole flyer"

Performers in the ceremony of El Palo Volador, “the pole flyer”; Credit: Jill Draper

Suddenly, the men launched themselves backwards and dangled upside down, spinning around the pole in wider and wider circles until just before reaching the ground, they flipped upright again.

We were mere bystanders for this centuries-old event, but as American Forests supporters, we echo the sentiments expressed: Let us bring hope to the modern earth by advancing causes that enrich and renew it. And let us protect places like the deep fir and pine forests, thick with orange and black butterflies, where maybe still, nothing is impossible.

Jill Draper is a freelance writer at jilldraperfreelance.wordpress.com. Harold Draper blogs about ecoregions at enviroramble.net. They live in Kansas City, Mo.

To learn more about American Forests Forestscapes, including our upcoming trip to Hawai‘i, visit www.americanforests.org/events.