Newsroom Midwest Region

Inspiring conservation after listening to the delicate sound of butterfly wings in Mexico

April 3, 2019

Wintering monarchs roosting clusters look dark and dense on the branch tips of Oyamel fir trees. Photo by Lori Nordstrom/USFWS.
Wintering monarchs roosting clusters look dark and dense on the branch tips of Oyamel fir trees. Photo by Lori Nordstrom/USFWS.

Imagine hiking up a dusty trail to elevations of 10,000 feet, each step moving closer to what appears to be orange and black confetti covering the trees. Through the dense forest, approaching closer and suddenly realizing the confetti is actually thousands of monarch butterflies in roosting clusters resting until they once again begin their migration north. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to ensure that monarch butterflies and this magnificent migration phenomenon continues. The number of monarchs have decreased significantly over the last 20 years, however together we can save the monarch. In North America, there is a massive effort underway to provide habitat for monarch butterflies, imperiled bees and other pollinators. Lori Nordstrom, the Assistant Regional Director of Ecological Services for our Midwest Region, has an integral role in monarch conservation. Witnessing this enchanting phenomenon gives her a new perspective on the conservation efforts conducted throughout the United States and North America. We are delighted to share her story.

Lori Nordstrom at the El Rosario monarch butterfly sanctuary. Photo by Lori Nordstrom/USFWS.
Lori Nordstrom at the El Rosario monarch butterfly sanctuary. Photo by Lori Nordstrom/USFWS.

Nordstrom fulfilled a lifetime dream this year– visiting the monarch butterfly wintering grounds in central Mexico. “It is a highlight of my life,” said Nordstrom. An avid traveler she has hiked to Mount Everest, gone on multiple African safaris and seen Bruce Springsteen live in Scotland and on Broadway. “Monarchs top all of that!”

Inspired by predictions of the monarch population being high for the 2018-2019 overwintering count, Nordstrom used vacation time and reserved a spot on a guided trip led by the University of Florida Natural History Museum. Meeting her tour in Mexico City started with a surprise; other monarch conservationists were on the trip, including staff from Monarch Watch. They departed the following day to Angangueo, a colonial town once filled with mining activity. Angangueo is nestled in a ravine that rambles between forested mountains, where millions of monarchs winter within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Nordstrom visited both the Sierra Chincua and El Rosario monarch butterfly sanctuaries on her trip. Here a local guide leads you on the 45 minute to 1-hour hike or horseback ride into the mountains. This incredible journey wanders through forests filled with long needled pines and Oyamel firs until you reach the butterfly colonies.

El Rosario supported the biggest population this winter so we started to see monarchs flying as we drove up in elevation to the base of the reserve, ” said Nordstrom. “As we hiked higher into the forest there were thousands of monarchs flying and we could see huge clumps of monarchs on the branches of the oyamel trees. “I got teary with joy and awe at this magical wonder.”

The dense shade and cool temperatures at this high elevation permits monarchs to survive the winter with scarce resources. There are few nectar sources in the forest so monarchs sip water from small streams trickling down the mountain to metabolize their stored fats to fuel their spring migration north. When the sun does strike its rays, basking the monarchs in warmth, the energy entices them to lift off the trees and take to the air.

“There were so many that I could hear them!” Nordstrom said, describing the sound of them flying as a gentle rain on dry leaves in a forest. There were millions of monarchs. Some trees would be covered with clumps of monarchs while nearby trees barely had any monarchs in them, leading Nordstrom to better understand why estimating the size of the monarch population is so difficult, and why it is measured by the size of the area covered rather than numbers of butterflies.

The 2018-2019 overwintering count confirmed the predictions – monarchs occupied more than 15 acres of forest, a 144 percent increase in overwintering population from last winter. Monarch numbers have not been this high since 2006-2007, as reported by Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Natural Areas. Monarch populations, like other insects, are characterized by annual population boom and busts.

Monarch butterfly on purple coneflower. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.
Monarch butterfly on purple coneflower. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.

Local guides are stationed along the paths through the reserves to provide information and ensure people are able to immerse themselves in the experience. Guides stress the importance of respecting the observation limits to allow all visitors to enjoy this breathtaking natural event. Visitors may not eat, smoke, throw trash or make noise.

The monarchs witnessed are those who survived a 2,500-mile migration across the eastern United States and southern Canada. It is amazing that these monarchs are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the butterflies that were in this exact location the previous winter. When monarchs start to arrive in late October, locals welcome them affectionately, believing these miracle migrations represent the souls of ancestors on their spiritual journey. This is because the monarchs return to Mexico around November 1 coincides with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), an important Mexican holiday.

During Nordstrom’s visit to El Rosario, she was impressed that the majority of visitors to the reserve were from local communities coming to appreciate “their” monarchs, including elementary school groups, families escorting their grandparents and college students. Nordstrom and her group showed the school kids and other visitors on the trail how to cup their hands around their ears to better amplify the sound of the monarch wings, as is done when listening to bats, which resulted in big smiles and wide-eyed appreciation of the delicate sound. What a field trip to instill the next generation of conservationists for the reserve!  

After hiking back down, visitors are able to rest and recharge energy at local restaurants, explore other trails or stroll around the local vendor corridor for a souvenir. Nordstrom’s tour group also visited an ejido, an area of communal land used for sustainable agriculture supported by Alternare, A.C. Alternare is a Mexican organization that educates and trains rural communities and supports ejidos that inhabit the reserve region. The Service’s International Affairs supports Alternare through the Wildlife Without Borders – Mexico program. In 2018, the Service and the Organization of American States awarded Alternare as the 2018 Conservation Champion for their 20 years of work to conserve migratory phenomenon of the monarch butterfly.

“Our work may be known to Americans, now I see the results of our actions,” said Nordstrom.

Nordstrom was proud to see the Service’s logo displayed on the wall recognizing Alternare’s many partners. Seeing that recognition deepened her understanding of the relevance of our conservation efforts and support on an international scale. Furthermore, this visit informed the tour group on sustainable agricultural practices for fruit crops, avocados and livestock.

Back in the office, Nordstrom’s singular experience visiting the monarch reserves has helped to better inform her work on monarch butterfly conservation. On a personal note, she is interested in how to help the ecotourism industry be even more sustainable for the communities within the reserve. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve comprises 140,000 acres of forest between the states of Michoacán and State of Mexico and is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The monarch tourist season is December through March.

No matter who you are or where you live, you can get involved today to help monarchs. Start by planting milkweed and nectar plants that are native to your area. Use organic yard products to minimize your impacts on monarchs, their food plants and other pollinators. Become a citizen scientist and monitor monarchs in your area. Educate others about pollinators, conservation and how they can help.