Year after year, millions of North American monarch butterflies make their way on a 3,000-mile journey from locations across Canada and the United States to winter in Mexico, where they gather in oyamel fir trees in the states of Michoacán and Mexico. In recent years, scientists have noted a sharp decline in the number of monarchs making this amazing pilgrimage, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to establish a new group dedicated to conservation of these miraculous creatures.
“As genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops such as corn, soy and cotton overspread our agricultural lands, farmers spray the land with herbicides,” writes the Huffington Post. “Those herbicides kill the milkweeds that monarchs depend on.”
Considering that at least three-quarters of the world’s current flood supply depends directly upon pollinators like butterflies, bees and other wild insects to facilitate reproduction, this issue is much more serious than it may appear on the surface. In the state of Michoacán, Mexico already dedicated a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in 2008; a protected area that spans more than 200 square miles and has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, certain areas are open to the public, providing visitors with the opportunity to witness firsthand one of nature’s greatest marvels.
“Mexico is the southern terminus of an age-old journey in which monarchs shuttle back and forth between far-flung summertime havens [in the north] and Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains,” writes the New York Times. “An internal compass guides the butterflies each fall to a small cluster of mountains where ideal temperatures and humidity allow them to rest, clinging to trees by the millions like brilliant orange capes, until they begin the northward return trip each March.”
According to experts, up to one billion monarchs once made the arduous journey, which includes cycles of mating and dying throughout, ensuring that descendents of the original group will make it to their ultimate destination in Mexico. Fall of 2013 saw the lowest numbers of monarchs arriving in recorded history, dropping as much as 90 percent from the annual average over the last 15 years. The decline is attributed to urban sprawl and increased application of herbicides near summer breeding grounds in the U.S., compounded by logging near Mexico’s wintering grounds, although the Mexican government has already made major strides in stopping this part of the problem.
Access points for visitors to Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve are open from November through March, offering viewing experiences at El Rosario, Sierra Chincua, Cerro Pellon and Piedra Herrada. As the largest and most popular entry point, El Rosario typically hosts thousands of annual visitors and boasts a breathtaking observation point at the end of a steep climb, reaching an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level. At Sierra Chincua, a less strenuous hike will afford a similar opportunity to view the monarchs as they rest in the branches of trees that reach skyward to heights of 100 feet or more. Many visitors to the area opt to stay in the small town of Angangueo, a picturesque mining town that lies nearby.
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“The town is layered into the hills, knitted with pine forest, grazing land and cornfields,” writes Lonely Planet. “By far the best place to stay in town is Albergue Don Bruno, which offers 30 upscale rooms (some with a fireplace), just a mile downhill from the plaza.”
Visitors can fly into either Mexico City or Morelia, but travel experts recommend planning to spend at least two-days in the area, since getting there from either city requires driving for at least an hour and a half, but up to four hours, depending on whether you opt to use a rental car or bus. Once you arrive in Angangueo, taxis are also readily available at reasonable rates to provide easy transportation to and from the butterfly reserve.
“The long-term solution for our species and our planet is for us to adopt a green and sustainable way of life,” writes the Huffington Post. “The logical approach to feeding ourselves is to massively ramp up the existing, viable, time-tested alternative of organic agriculture.”