Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cinnamon Sailors: Robert Michael Pyle Discusses Monarch Conservation

Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle
[Editor's note: First and foremost, Robert Michael Pyle wants you all to know the following information:  The deadline for comments on the Fish and Wildlife Service's Petition to List the Monarch Butterfly as a Threatened Species is TOMORROW, March 2, 2015]

And now, in his own words, Robert Michael Pyle:

How lucky I was to chase monarchs when I did.  The year 1996 did not offer up large numbers of monarchs for me to follow, but there were some, and it seemed a monarch always popped up where and when I needed it most: crossing the Columbia River, materializing out of the Bonneville Salt flats, beating across the desert toward the border.  But such has not been the case lately. Both the Thanksgiving Monarch Counts in California, coordinated and compiled by Mia Monroe and the World Wildlife Fund--Mexican government counts in Michoacan have reported in recent years the lowest numbers of wintering monarchs ever recorded.

Why is this?  Many reasons may apply, including development of overwintering areas and loss of milkweed in California.  As for the Mexican overwinterers, GMO (genetically modified organism) crops in the Midwest and ongoing logging in Michoacan play major roles, as Lincoln Brower describes in the Foreword.  There is some welcome evidence that large-scale illegal logging in the Mexican reserves may be diminishing at last.  Meanwhile, the threat from at least three genetically modified crops--Bt corn and Roundup ready soybeans and corn--is only getting worse.  Bt corn has been modified to carry the gene of the bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) that produces a toxin lethal to the larvae of Lepidoptera.  The argument has been made and been tested that toxic corn pollen reaches milkweed on the wind, killing monarch larvae.  The loss to monarch numbers from this source is uncertain, but the injury from Roundup Ready soybean and corn is incontestable.  By rendering soybeans and corn plants resistant to powerful herbicides, the new genes enable (and virtually require) greatly increased applications of such chemicals across the Midwest soy and corn belt. This is how transgenic crops have made the heartland inhospitable for monarchs: the very region known to be the breadbasket for the species in North America.  Because all of these GMO crops and the herbicides they bring on are products of one company, the name Monsanto has become the antithesis of monarchs in many people's minds.
Monarch (ventral) on rabbitbrush in eastern Washington/Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle
Everything I have written about monarch conservation earlier still applies.  But now comes a new threat, not as obvious in 1999 when this book was first published: global warming.  The monarchs go to high elevations in Mexico or the Californian coast in late fall not to be warm but to be cool: to preserve their DNA and stored fat over the winter months.  As the forests of the Trans-Mexican Neovolcanic Belt of south-central Mexico warm and dry, the winter clusters must rise higher and higher in elevation to find the cool,moist conditions they require.  Some scientists project that the only Mexican sites capable of retaining Oyamel fir beyond 2050 might be the high volcanoes near Mexico City.  But if cooked off the top of their current winter headquarters, would the displaced monarchs be able to find their way to Popocatepetl?

In the American West and Midwest , the great warming and drying are under way.  It seems likely that continuing drought has much to do with the low numbers of monarchs in recent years.  Both the absence of sufficient moisture for milkweed sprouting and succulence and the arid inhospitability of the migratory flyways stand to stem the natural and rapid replenishment of which insects are capable.  Climate change is implicated as well in extreme weather events that can cause major mortality, such as hurricanes during migration.  Great winter storms in Mexico have left deep drifts of dead monarchs, up to 80 percent of the population, in some years.  And yet, as Barbara Kingsolver has posited in her novel Flight Behavior, perhaps monarchs will respond to warming by shifting their locus of winter activity.  This could work either for 'em or agin 'em, depending on the reliability of conditions in any new winter resort that they could find.  In the West, we could conceivably see clusters shifting north into the redwoods or beyond. 
Future fossil Monarchs, Mexico/Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle

All these factors make North American migratory monarch an endangered phenomenon: a new concept when Lincoln Brower and I developed it in parallel around 1980. Their future is more uncertain than ever.  Yet along with new and bigger threats have come novel and expanded efforts for their conservation.  The various projects of Monarch Watch and the Monarch Joint Venture, for example, are encouraging.  I am particularly heartened by the native milkweed cultivation, propagation, and distribution programs initiated by the Xerces Society.

Supposing all the good intentions and labor of conservationists, in concert with the supple adaptability of the organism itself, can give them a future after all, I wonder whether anyone will ever again attempt to follow the monarchs?  I envy whomever it might be.  I'll never forget those crisp autumn mornings, awakening in a campsite or highway rest area or beneath a monarch tree, and wondering what lay ahead for me, somewhere down the road, that day.  Would there be any monarchs?  If so, where would they be going?  Because where they pointed, there I would follow.  Nothing else to do, nothing at all, but chase the cinnamon sailors, seeking Danae's gold.

I'd go in a flash.

[excerpt from Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage]

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Do you have your copy of Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage yet?

Almost one week out and Robert Michael Pyle will post his first commentary for our book discussion.

Time to locate a copy of the book at your local bookstore or order direct from Yale University Press (YUP).

Another idea:  Check out whether a library near you has a copy in stock.   Remember the YUP edition is a reprint of an earlier printing but includes an afterword by the author plus updated information on the myriad threats to monarch butterflies; this new edition also includes the various efforts under way to ensure the future of the world's most amazing butterfly migration.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Robert Michael Pyle to Moderate Monarch WildRead Book Discussion - March 2015

America's WildRead comes alive again after a two year hiatus!. Beginning March 1, 2015, our WildRead will host an online, virtual book discussion of the book, Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage, by Robert Michael Pyle who will also moderate the discussions.

The format is this:  the author will make at least one posting a week to prompt discussion around the topic of the book.  Readers can ask questions and weigh in using the comment feature.  The author as moderator will then respond.

This online book discussion is in concert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's  National Conservation Training Center's public lecture series that will feature Robert Michael Pyle on March 12 in the Byrd Auditorium at 7 p.m. in a talk entitled, "The Monarch of the Americas: Chasing, Saving and Understanding our Most Iconic Insect." 

Much of a monarch butterfly’s (Danaus plexippus) life is spent migrating between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada-a journey that for some individuals can cover over 3,000 miles. However, this journey has become more dangerous and less successful for many because of deforestation, illegal logging, increased development, agricultural expansion, livestock raising, forest fires, and other threats to their migratory paths and summer and overwintering habitats. Since 1995, the Wildlife Without Borders - Mexico Program has made a continuing commitment to support the conservation of monarch butterflies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also a key player in the Monarch Joint Venture efforts for the lower 48 states.

Photo credit: Greg Thompson/FWS
So stay tuned for more info.  See the Pyle bio here:

Robert Michael Pyle was born and raised in Colorado and has lived in the Pacific Northwest, California, New England, and Great Britain. His B.Sc. in Nature Perception and Protection and M.Sc. in Nature Interpretation from the University of Washington were followed by a Ph.D. in Lepidoptera Ecology and Conservation from Yale University. He worked as Ranger-Naturalist in Sequoia National Park, butterfly conservation consultant for the government of Papua New Guinea, Northwest Land Steward for The Nature Conservancy, and co-manager of the Species Conservation Monitoring Center in Cambridge, U.K. In 1971, he founded the international Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, later chaired its Monarch Project, and was the founding chairman of IUCN's Lepidoptera Specialist Group.

For thirty-three years, Pyle has been an independent, full-time biologist, writer, teacher, and speaker. He has published hundreds of articles, essays, papers, stories, and poems, and eighteen books. They include Wintergreen, The Thunder Tree, Where Bigfoot Walks, Chasing Monarchs, Walking the High Ridge, Sky Time in Gray’s River, and Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year; as well as The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, The Butterflies of Cascadia, and several other standard works on butterflies. His latest book is Evolution of the Genus Iris: Poems. A Guggenheim Fellow, Pyle has won the John Burroughs Medal, three Governor's Writer's Awards, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Award, the Harry Nehls Award for Nature Writing, and the National Outdoor Book Award for natural history literature. 

Pyle's essays from fifty-two consecutive issues of Orion and Orion Afield magazines are published in The Tangled Bank by Oregon State University Press.  A novel, collections of stories and essays, and peer-reviewed scientific papers on butterflies are forthcoming.

For his work with butterfly ecology and conservation, Bob received the John Adams Comstock Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology. He has been Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Washington and Yale University forestry schools; and was recently appointed Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and a Senior Fellow of the Spring Creek Project at Oregon State University.

Bob Pyle has taught writing and natural history seminars for many colleges and institutes around the world, and presented hundreds of invited lectures and keynote addresses. In recent years he has served as Visiting Professor of Environmental Writing at Utah State University; as Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Montana; and as place-based writing instructor for the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Tajikistan and the Writers' Centre of Tasmania. For thirty-five years he has dwelled beside, observed, and written about Gray's River, a tributary of the Lower Columbia River, in the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington.

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