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How can we preserve the Monarch butterfly?

After disastrously low numbers last year, the butterfly count released earlier this week finds that monarch buttery numbers are up at their overwintering site in central Mexico. Each fall, millions of butterflies from east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to a handful of mountain tops in central Mexico where they find the unique climatic conditions necessary for winter survival (Calvert & Brower 1986; Brower et al. 2008). These same monarchs fly from as far away as the northern United States and southern Canada to a patch of fir forests that are smaller than the area of Champaign County. Estimates put the current population of butterflies in these Mexican forests at 56.5 million, up from the record low of 34 million last year. But the current count is still only a tiny fraction of the 1 billion monarchs that migrated to these forests in the mid-1990s. Several groups have noted that the dramatic drop in population may mean that this unique phenomenon may end in our lifetime.

Since its survival depends on habitat in all three countries, the monarch butterfly is a symbol for North American environmental cooperation (Oberhauser et al. 2008). However that habitat is under threat. In Mexico, the overwintering site is threatened by illegal logging, and in the United States and Canada, expanded crop acreage and weed control has eaten into the monarch’s supply of milkweed, the sole food source for the butterfly.

Until recently, attention was largely paid to the threats to the unique forests where the butterflies overwinter. Mexico’s forests are under a threat in general. Mexico’s deforestation rate is the second highest in the Americas (FAO 2005). Temperate forests are lost at an estimated 0.25 percent per year, while forests are degraded 0.7 percent – 3.5 percent per year (Mas et al. 2004). In the monarch overwintering site, degradation rates are at the high end of the Mexican average, at 1.3-3.2 percent.

Since the monarch overwintering site was discovered in the 1970s, many policies have been put in place to protect this forest and the natural wonder it supports. In 1986 the Mexican government set aside 4,514 hectares of forest around specific monarch colonies as a no-cut zone within a protected area. By the late 1990s, butterfly conservationists argued that this protection was not enough – both in terms of scale and enforcement. An international team of biologists developed the minimum habitat necessary for the butterflies’ survival in Mexico, and soon momentum gathered behind their proposal to enlarge the protected area (Missrie & Nelson 2007). Using biological criteria related to slope, elevation and aspect, in late 2000 the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) was expanded to cover 56,259 hectares, of which 13,551 were set aside in a no-cut zone.

Along with expanding the logging ban near the monarch colonies, a financial incentive was established to induce communities to stop felling timber. The Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund (MBCF) pays owners within the no-cut zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve for forest protection and lost timber rights (Missrie & Nelson 2007; Honey-Rosés et al. 2009). The MBCF was created with a $5 million donation from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, later matched by contributions from the Mexican Federal and State Governments. The MBCF payment program is managed by WWF Mexico and the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature. After ten years of operation, the MBCF has disbursed $3.3 million to participating forest communities. Communities are paid between $ 10-12/hectare of conserved forest and $18/m3 of forfeited timber as a result of the legal protection. The program has implemented a vigilant monitoring system that has measured annual forest change and withheld payment from non-compliant communities (Honey-Rosés et al. 2009).

Both logging bans and payments for ecosystem services (PES) are well-known tools for forest conservation. Another approach to preserving forests is community forest management. The idea is that communities have the incentive to manage forests for their long-run economic and hopefully, ecological outcomes. This policy approach is seen as a possible win-win, generating both economic benefits to the community and environmental benefits to the forests and the creatures it sustains.

Community forest management in Mexico emerged following decades of top-down forestry. In the mid twentieth century, forest communities were largely excluded from the timber management decisions on the lands they owned. Logging rights were given exclusively to public and private timber firms who made extraction decisions without the input from forest dwelling communities. These rentista firms would frequently force communities into unfavorable contracts that maximized the volumes extracted while minimizing the stumpage fees paid in exchange. In many cases, the stumpage fees paid to communities could be as low as 1 percent of the timber’s market value (Klooster 2003). It was also common for rentista firms to resort to coercion, bribery, or violence to maintain their access to timber resources (Klooster 2003).

The Forestry Law of 1986 devolved the responsibility for forest management from logging firms back to the forest owning communities (Klooster 2003; Bray et al. 2005). The law rescinded the previous logging concessions to the rentista firms, required that logging permits be given only to forest owning communities rather than intermediaries, and allowed for the creation of community owned forest enterprises. At the same time, the Mexican Government assisted forest communities in developing their own forest management plans by providing technical assistance and training programs. Since 1997, the Programa para el Desarrollo Forestal (PRODEFOR) has subsidized the costs of forest management plans and provided training to improve the forestry related skills within the agrarian communities. Once a community establishes their forest management plan, the law stipulates that they may begin to harvest timber on a 10-year cycle. All management plans must be developed by certified foresters and then approved by the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR). Some of the most successful forest communities have trained internal foresters that can now develop the management plans. Although formally one must have a forest management plan in place to legally harvest timber, many communities have still not adopted forest management plans while trees are harvested on their properties.

Along with two colleagues, one from the University of British Columbia and one from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, I evaluate various conservation programs directed at preserving the monarch’s overwintering habitat in Mexico (Baylis, Honey-Roses and Ramirez 2015). Because a patchwork of policies are in place in the region, we can ask which appeared to work to preserve forest, and how these policies interact.

We find that the logging ban on its own had little effect, but when combined with the payment for ecosystem services, it appeared to preserve forest. What was striking was that this combination of policies primarily worked in those communities who had previously adopted a forest management plan. Even when we control for a community’s ability to govern itself, something that could affect both forest outcomes and its ability to adopt a management plan, we observe that pre-existing forest management improved the outcome of the payment program. Thus, there may be something about developing a forest management plan and having managed community forests in improving a community’s ability to adopt and internally enforce a PES program.

Differences in how these conservation policies are implemented, in addition to the specific context of the monarch region, make it difficult to make generalizable claims that payments are always better than regulatory actions that limit resource use. Nevertheless, this particular protected area and this particular PES program are probably above average in terms of invested human and financial resources. In other words, while these programs are far from perfect, they are probably representative of how relatively well-enforced protected areas operate, and therefore a true reflection of the policy options available to decision makers. Even so, we observe highly variable effects of the PES and evidence that better governed communities are better able to make use of the policy. That said, the evidence that community forest management can improve the outcome of the PES may indicate a way forward for governments hoping to improve the outcomes of forest conservation policy.

Illegal logging, particularly selective logging, still occurs in the area, so even if the collection of policies helps, they are not perfectly successful at ending forest degradation. Thus, more could be done. In conjunction with protection of the overwintering forests, attention also needs to be paid to the other parts of the monarch habitat, spring and summer habitat and areas along the flyway in the United States and Canada. Many non-governmental organizations encourage people to plant milkweed and to avoid mowing roadside strips, leaving the collection of native plants in place. Given the monarch’s low numbers, however, more action may be needed. In late December, the US Fish and Wildlife service announced that it was reviewing a proposal to include monarchs on the endangered species which would mandate the protection of monarch habitat (Washington Post). The fact that mandated habitat protection works best when mixed with financial incentives and the process of developing management plans may suggest a policy mix to improve the butterfly’s lot across its entire migration.

Bray, D. B., Merino-Pérez, L., and Barry, D. 2005. The community forests of Mexico: Managing for sustainable landscapes. Mountain Research and Development (Vol. 27, p. 372). University of Texas Press.

Brower, L.P., Castilleja, G., Peralta, A., Lopez-Garcia, J., Bojorquez-Tapia, L., Diaz, S., Marmolejo, D., Missrie, M., 2002. Quantitative changes in forest quality in a principal overwintering area of the monarch butterfly in Mexico 1971-1999. Conservation Biology 2:346-359.

Brower, L. P., E. H. Williams, L. S. Fink, R. R. Zubieta, and M. I. Ramírez. 2008. Monarch butterfly clusters provide microclimatic advantages during the overwintering season in Mexico. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 62:177-188.

Calvert, W. H. and L. P. Brower. 1986. The location of monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus L.) overwintering colonies in Mexico in relation to topography and climate. Journal of the Lepidopterist Society 40: 164–187.

Honey-Rosés, J., K. Baylis and I. Ramirez. 2011. A spatially explicit estimate of avoided forest loss Conservation Biology 25(5):1032-1043.

Honey-Rosés, J., J. López-García, E. Rendón-Salinas, A. Peralta-Higuera, and C. Galindo-Leal. 2009. To pay or not to pay? Monitoring performance and enforcing conditionality when paying for forest conservation in Mexico. Environmental Conservation 36:120-128.

Klooster, D. 1999. Community-based forestry in Mexico: Can it reverse processes of degradation? Land Degradation Development 10 (4): 365-381.

Klooster, D. 2003. Campesinos and Mexican Forest Policy during the twentieth century. Latin American Research Review 38(2): 94-126.

Mas, J.F. 2005. Assessing Protected Area Effectiveness Using Surrounding (Buffer) Areas Environmentally Similar to the Target Area. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 105: 69-80.

Missrie, M., Nelson K., 2007. Direct Payments for Conservation: Lessons from the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund. Pages 189-212 in A. Usha, editor.Bio-diversity and Conservation: International Perspectives. The Icfai University Press, Hyderabad, India.

Oberhauser, K., et al. 2008. North American Monarch Conservation Plan. Commission for Environmental Conservation. Canada.

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