Monarch butterflies in Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Scott Clark

The majestic, beautiful monarch butterflies. They are instantly recognizable with their distinctive orange and black wings. But they are also famous for posing a question that scientists have not been able to answer.

For decades, scientists have been perplexed by how each year monarchs can make the same 2,500-mile southern migration to their Mexican winter habitat despite having never been there. But we may never have a chance to learn how they do it. The survival of this baffling and inspiring North American migration is in danger due to illegal logging and climate change, which is why American Forests began working to save their habitat five years ago.

Partnering with Forests for Monarchs, American Forests has been restoring the forest ecosystems in and around the monarch butterflies’ Mexican habitat. Each winter, the butterflies huddle together in oyamel fir trees to stay alive and warm. Since 2006, we’ve planted 900,000 trees with Forests for Monarchs to help bolster the monarchs’ forest ecosystem.

Forty years ago, around the time that the eastern North American monarchs’ wintering home was first discovered, the mountaintops of the Transverse Neo-Volcanic Mountain range of Central Mexico consisted of nearly continuous oyamel fir forests. Today, those forests are fragmented, degraded by more than 40 percent, which has endangered the monarchs.

Each spring, Mexico’s wintering monarchs begin a northward migration — one that will take three generations to complete. Mature monarchs only live for two to six weeks … except for the fourth generation. This is the generation that begins an instinctually southern migration in September and October, making its way to the same Mexican oyamel firs that sheltered its great grandparents. Scientists have yet to figure out how these butterflies continually make their way to the same winter home year after year with no guide.

Once in Mexico, the waxy needles of the oyamel trees protect the monarchs from rain and water. Moisture is deadly for the butterflies. If they become wet and temperatures drop too low, they literally freeze to death.

These same fir forests are also vital to many local and indigenous communities in Michoacán — providing wood for heating, cooking and selling. As a result, our partners Forests for Monarchs, the new project name for La Cruz Habitat Protection Project, Inc., don’t just plant trees to supplement these forests ecosystems. They educate, train and collaborate with the ejidos, or communal land system, and communities around the Monarch Biosphere Reserve in the states of Michoacán and Mexico, Mexico. By supporting these communities and providing alternate sources of income, the threat of deforestation of the monarchs’ winter home is reduced.

The monarch population has been steadily declining for the past seven years, but through our work with Forests for Monarchs, American Forests is committed to reversing that trend and to protecting the migration of these one-of-a-kind butterflies.

Concerned about the monarch butterflies? Make a contribution to American Forests today. Your support will enable us to meet our mission of protecting and restoring forests like the oyamel fir, which provide vital shelter, shade and security for endangered wildlife like these majestic monarchs.

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