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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Anne said...

This is where you can leave your comments! Bob will check in several times a week to respond,

the ferminator? said...

I like the image of the "cinnamon sailors" and look forward to learning more as we read this book together. I have fond memories of bushes on the north side of Lake Pontchatrain covered in Monarchs in the early morning dew of a late September or early October weekend camping trip, and finding myself among the "cinnamon sailors" as I drove and they flew along the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway with all of us heading south!

Mona Miller said...

I just hope the Monarch butterfly is given the support that it needs. When we create habitat for Monarchs we create habitat for all creatures.

I remember that I used to see many of them crossing and following roadways during the fall in Northern Virginia. Each year, I have seen fewer of them. I remember cringing and holding my breathe when I was stopped at an intersection and they would be trying to cross with huge semi trucks roaring though the intersection. I can imagine that they would be very hard to follow because at times, they swirl up into the sky out of sight.

They are more than sailors, they are also the vessel and instruments, which carries them to their destination.

Sarah said...

I've heard stories of people in their offices in urban skyscrapers viewing Monarchs out the window as they soar by, riding thermal winds, but I've never thought of them as high-elevation creatures. Thank you for highlighting that these amazing insects need to stay cool at key times in order to preserve their energy - amazing! Now, what can we do to stop this GMO train before it destroys the future for the Monarch (as well as many other elements of our native ecology)?

Karene said...

Thank you for this discussion on the WildRead. I am half-way through your book, Dr. Pyle, and I am enjoying the field journal style of your prose. I wonder if you can mention something about the photo above with the monarchs in water. What is this? And where did you witness this?
Looking forward to engaging with everyone around this wonderful book and subject.

Debbie said... first wildread and I don't have the book yet. I am going to get the ebook and start tonight! I am really looking forward to being a member of a book club.

Nancy Z said...

I am so pleased to see WildRead come to live again, after 2 years! I really enjoy reading the books, learning and sharing with the authors and others.

I look forward to the journey of the "cinnamon sailors" with Robert Michael Pyle (thanks!) at a time when these magnificent monarchs so need our transbounadry cooperation and aid. From Schoolyard Habitats to larger public lands and policies. If we each do our part...

Bob Pyle said...

R. M.. Pyle: Response to America's Wild Read comments on Chasing Monarchs:
March 10, 2015

I apologize for being so late in making my first response! I tried earlier, but my reply disappeared into the ether. Let's hope it works better this time.

Ferminator, thanks for that beautiful memory of monarchs furring the foliage along Lake Pontchartrain. I envy you that sighting, and very much hope the phenomenon still occurs there, after all the changes both monarchs and the Mississippi Delta have undergone in recent years.

Mona, you are so right that support for monarchs will mean support for other species as well. As milkweed habitat restoration picks up speed and momentum, as is happening in the wake of the listing petition, such support is becoming a reality.

As for the peril for monarchs from rushing traffic, it is very real and I agree, alarming. However, I am happy to tell you that during my big monarch chase I noticed that they were very adept at sailing up and over the windshields of approaching cars and trucks, and I really saw very few roadkilled monarchs.

I love your statement that "They are more than sailors, they are also the vessel and instruments, which carries them to their destination." Along these lines, you would enjoy poem # 54 in Alison Deming's poem sequence, The Monarchs, in which she says, "she forgot/the instruments and steered/instead by butterflies."

Sarah, your memory is correct. A grand old lepidopterist named Sidney Hessell, for one, viewed monarchs sailing past his high office in Manhattan. And David Gibo has flown with them, thousands of feet up, in his glider. Monarchs often rise quite high on thermals, then glide down, which is one way they cover such distances in their migration. Yes, it's a real concern that the high elevation forests in the mountain of Michoacan may become too warm for them to winter in and still preserve the fat they need for to begin the northbound migration in spring.

As for the GMO train--like the coal and oil trains and gas lines out of every energy-rich region--is very tough to stop. Let's hope the monarch's plight, and the listing effort, can bring strong force to bear in this uneven battle.

Karene, thank you for your kind words about my book. Yes, the photograph of monarchs in water, taken by my late wife Thea Linnaea Pyle, depicts individuals that came down from their winter roosts to take on moisture. This is an important activity during their winter diapause, and a limiting factor on suitable locations for overwintering. However, some take too much water on board, become bloated, and cannot take off again. Then they drown. It's a sad and poignant sight, but it did strike me that this unfortunate outcome could lead to future fossiliferous strata, bearing butterfly fossils, like the Oligocene shales at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado, with their early snout butterflies and a beautiful prehistoric species named Prodryas persephone. Thea photographed this scene at El Rosario, above Angangueo in Michoacan, Mexico, one of the major sites for visiting the overwinterers.

Debbie, I hope you will enjoy it! Thanks for joining us.
You too, Nancy Z! And you are so right...the monarchs recognize no boundaries, except that between survival and extinction. "Each of us doing our part" is exactly what's needed, because we know darned well that if we do, the monarchs will do will surely do theirs.

All the best to all participants, with special thanks for your interest in my monarch book, and I look forward to our next exchange.

Nancy Z said...

I can’t help to also harken back to your book Thunder Tree and to the “Extinction of Experience.” I refer to that phrase often in my environmental education work. There is so much depth of meaning in those words – thank you! I hope that young and old alike will still have the experience of observing a monarch butterfly for many years to come, on a plant in their backyard or on the monarch’s migration route, even flying high with the hawks. I am in awe when hawk watching, to see them flying along the same route! It’s always a special and impressive siting.

In the Endings - Recovery chapter of Chasing Monarchs, you wrote, “I had lived with the monarchs; they had been my guides.” I hope we can all work together (locally and globally) and they can help guide us to better agricultural practices, habitat conservation, efforts to address global warming and just overall engage us in continuing to enjoy and celebrate the experience and wonder of nature.

Thanks for sharing your journey with us. Wow! And being our guide, too. Thanks also for letting us know about the photo on the cover taken by your late wife. I am so sorry to learn that your wife and partner has passed. As you included her in the story, I could tell you shared a special life together. My deepest heartfelt sympathies.

Bob Pyle said...

Thank you so much for coming to my talk, Nancy Z., and you too, Mona. I was happy to see you both! What a gratifying turnout we had--people really care about monarchs!

It was also stunning for me to see all the activity for monarchs on behalf of USFWS while I was visiting their beautiful nerve center at NCTC. With Director Dan Ashe having issued a directive to the effect that "Thou shalt go forward and conserve monarchs," the Service is scuttling to do so in many effective ways across the land. This will ultimately demonstrate the wisdom of the listing petition, whether or not the listing ever comes to pass.

Thanks for mentioning "The Extinction of Experience," Nancy. It really is all about that. And also for evoking the hawk watch. In the Rachel Carson Lodge at NCTC, there hangs a beautiful picture of St. Rachel watching the hawks on Hawk Mountain. Of course, she also watched the monarchs, as she described in a beautiful passage toward the end of Always, Rachel, her correspondence with Dorothy Freeman: "But most of all I shall remember the Monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force...." Elsewhere, she called them these "brightly fluttering bits of life. "

Thank you too for you kind words of condolence (when Rachel wrote about the monarchs, she knew that she too would soon be passing: "for most," she wrote, "this was the closing journey of their lives,"); and about my participation here; and for suggesting "monarchs as our guides" . . . "to enjoy and celebrate the experience and wonder of nature." We could do much worse!

More comments? Do readers feel the monarchs are worth listing/appropriate for listing/ can be helped by listing? Or should we just assume, as Roger Tory Peterson once told me (and at the time it seemed right), "The monarchs will take care of themselves?"

I'd love to hear your thoughts, or your questions about anything else in the book that struck you, jarred you, or piqued your curiosity. Or how about this: A fellow named Chris Tenney is now undertaking a second butterfly big year, inspired by (and challenging) my total from Mariposa Road: I say, "Yippee! Go get 'em!" Now, should someone else try following monarchs again?


Nancy Z said...

I did not know that about Rachel's writing on the Monarchs with her hawk watching. Thanks for sharing. I can just visualize and feel from her words..."that unhurried westward drift..." It was wonderful when I saw them fluttering by with the hawks. In their own way. Reminders that we all get "there" (wherever that may be on the journey of life) at our pace.

Wow - you conversing with Roger Tory Peterson on the Monarchs. Would have loved to be a (butter)fly on the wall for that conversation. I wonder if he would still say they can take of themselves? Things have changed so dramatically and human-caused.

And another big butterfly year to follow yours. Cool! What an adventure you inspired.